5 Keys to Writing a Great Annual Report

So you get the call to write a company’s annual report. Woohoo! Gulp.

It’s not surprising that many writers approach annual report writing assignments with a combination of triumph and trepidation. Being asked to articulate a company’s positioning, strategy, and accomplishments validates your skills as a writer. It also puts your work under the microscope. Senior managers may not read the content that you write for their company website, but you can be certain they will read every word of the annual. The stakes are high – and that’s a huge opportunity for you.

My grandfather, a successful small businessman, always said his two most important advisors were his accountant and his priest. Had he run a public company, he might have added the writer of his annual report to the club. Companies that find someone who can capture their voice and tell their story well – a writer who “gets it” – usually form lasting bonds with that writer.

Here are five tips for making your annual report content great:

1. Interview the CEO. The annual report is his or her story to tell and, as the writer, you should hear it first-hand. This isn’t always easy to arrange – for either logistical or political reasons – but it is worth pushing for. Explain to your marketing contacts that costs grow with every layer between you and the top, as does the risk of misdirection. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have you interview the CEO, preferably in person.

2. Email questions before the interview. Obvious, yes, but many best practices are. Your CEO’s time is valuable. Outlining your interview questions in an email will help him or her to prepare. It will also organize your thoughts. You can develop the questions with the help of the internal marketing team, which will have insights and knowledge about highlights from the past year. And don’t be surprised when your CEO arrives at your meeting with your email – it has happened to me more than once.

3. Let the input drive the theme. I’ve found that concepting themes prior to hearing what the CEO has to say wastes time and money. Embedded in your CEO interview will be the seeds for your annual report’s theme. Trust it to emerge from your discussion and resist the urge to impose pre-conceived concepts and ideas on the story.

4. Write visually. Attention spans are at an all-time low, so make sure your copy is integrated into a compelling visual presentation. Team with great print and web designers to come up with ways to complement your main narrative with cool graphics, sidebars, spotlight stories, heroic quotes, etc. That’s what we did in this report for Schneider Electric last year. We gave our readers multiple ways to get into the story.

5. Use Q&As and testimonials to vary the presentation. Break up large blocks of copy with format switchups such as Q&As and testimonials. Q&As make content easy to digest and convey information “straight from the expert’s mouth.” Testimonials are an effective way to augment your story with a different voice.

Annual reports are among the most rewarding of all writing assignments. If you are asked to write one, embrace the challenge. You will emerge more knowledgeable about your client and more valuable to them. Written one lately? Hope you’ll share your experience and add tips in the comments.

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