How to tell your business story

Annual reports have a funny way of sneaking up on you. You know they’re coming, but they’re hard to think about until the deadline looms.

Annual reports are essentially about accountability – but they can do more than that. Here’s 77 annual report tips to help you deliver on time and budget, and tell the story of your business.

Before you start

Tell a story that’s about more than numbers and compliance

  1. Provide templates to business units to record milestones, good news, achievements and challenges through the year. They can be easily forgotten.
  2. Take a look at last year’s annual report. Did it include goals to be reported against this year?
  3. Don’t assume no one reads annual reports and phone it in. Tell a story that’s about more than numbers and compliance, and create some quality content.


Cook the books and include some fat in the schedule

4. Don’t plan in June for an annual report due in August. It’ll just be last year’s report with the figures updated.

5. Work backwards from the distribution date to develop an achievable timeline. This date may depend on your AGM, legislative requirements or shareholder reporting.

6. Decide if the report needs to be printed or is for distribution online only. This influences approach, design and timeframes.

7. Cook the books and include some ‘fat’ in the schedule. You’ll need it.

Get help

Project manager, copywriter, graphic designer, editor, proofreader, printer

8. Book in your suppliers. You might need a project manager, graphic designer, copywriter, editor, photographer, printer and distributor. Book ahead to get the good ones!

9. Get non-disclosure agreements signed if you’re producing sensitive information.

Who does what?

Stay approachable or you won’t hear about potential issues

10. Have a designated project manager to oversee the entire report.

11. Identify a single point of contact for each business unit.

12. Explain responsibilities and deadlines clearly.

13. Keep the lines of communication open and stay approachable. If there’s a problem, people need to know you’ll work through a solution together.

Approval processes

Ask for feedback  but be clear who makes the final decisions

14. Document who signs off design concepts, each section of content, financials and the final overall report.

15. Give plenty of notice of approval timeframes (with leeway built in on your end).

16. Think ahead on behalf of your CEO. Don’t give them a week to approve if you know they need to take it to next month’s Board meeting.

17. Check if any key stakeholders are out of the office around approval times, and plan ahead to make it work.

18. Clarify who has the final say if there’s a conflict about content. Defer to business unit heads, and then the CEO.


Keep everyone honest with a weekly work in progress email

19. Set up regular check-ins and reminders for all contributors. Give them opportunities to ask for help.

20. Send a weekly work in progress (WIP) email to keep contributors, key stakeholders and suppliers up to date (and accountable).

21. Regularly check all your deadlines and timeframes regularly to see they’re still adding up. Then check them again.


Match your theme to your strategic direction and performance

22. As part of your initial planning, develop a theme for the report based on your strategic direction or key achievements. This will help you get graphic design moving and provide a framework for authors.

23. Let the theme guide which projects and milestones to highlight. It’s OK if your message evolves as the content develops.

24. Highlight achievements but don’t ignore challenges or disappointments.

25. Check your theme lines up with the story your financials tell. Don’t set a theme of ‘growth’ is there’s a decline in profits and an uncertain outlook.


Support the numbers with analysis of results and trends

26. Get confirmation when financial reports will be ready – some need to be approved by independent external auditors.

27. Have a clear agreement on what format the financial information will be supplied in.

28. Agree in the planning stage what supporting content is required. A good finance team interprets the data and provides some analysis, rather than data dump and run.


Make it easy for contributors to see what’s relevant

29. Be clear which team is writing each element and what should be included.

30. Make producing draft content as easy as possible on business units. Create a template which asks for key information under specific headings.

Tone of voice

Capture your unique brand identity, personality and values

31. Your annual report is like any piece of content; it should capture your brand’s unique identity, personality and values.

32. If you have a brand or tone of voice guideline, start there and check on the type of language, tone and qualities you are representing.

33. Match the tone of voice to the type of content. The CEO or Board message is likely to be more formal than quotes from customers.


Don’t focus on the day-to-day, keep it big picture

34. Think about achievements on a strategic level. Look out, not at the day-to-day of the office. Don’t talk about a new coffee machine, talk about productivity and what it means for shareholders or the community.

35. Use your theme and key messages as the golden thread to be woven through the entire annual report.

36. Information every annual report should have:

  • financial statements
  • achievements and challenges
  • outlook for the next year.

Human touch

Add a human face and make a connection

 37. Put people first to engage the audience and bring life to data, projects, results or challenges.

38. Use case studies, interviews, quotes, testimonials and real-life examples.

The document

Be vigilant with version control

39. Create the master document in Word and set up your headings and formatting styles. Use this to create templates for business units.

40. Keep each major section separate to avoid an unwieldy document. Don’t merge sections until the first master version needs to be approved prior to design.

41. Don’t add hi-res images to the Word doc. Keep them lo-res to keep the document size small and stable.

42. Establish a clear system of version control for each section and for the master document.


Zero tolerance of sloppy changes and comments

43. Apply a strict system of using Track Changes to request changes and add comments. Accept no substitutes.

44. Make it clear in each review or approval stage what you want the reader to focus on:

  • fact checking
  • tone of voice and language
  • grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • format and design
  • all of the above.


Use photos to build your theme and support your key messages

45. Set dates for individual or group shots based on availability when booking. Be prepared to juggle for the CEO or Board members, be firm with everyone else.

46. Try to involve people in the images – and not just the executive team. If you’re a building services company, show us some of the team on a construction site. If you’re a florist, don’t just show us flowers, show us designers and delivery drivers making someone’s day.

47. Think of the photos as part of your tone of voice – they should represent your brand voice, personality and values.

Data and numbers

Use numbers in context and explain them

48. Use numbers and data wisely – in context, referenced and matching your message.

49. Use research and statistics to build your theme and support your key messages.

50. Include analysis to explain data – provide year-on-year comparisons and trends your audience can relate to. 

Graphs and tables

Refer to graphs, tables and figures within text – or delete them

51. The type of graph or chart you choose should depend on what you want to do.

52. Provide alternative text to explain graphs or charts. If you haven’t referred to a graph, table or figure in the content – add a meaningful reference or delete it.


Get the logistics right and know your responsibilities

53. Once you send to the printers, be ready to turn the printer’s proof around quickly. Remember changes at proof stage cost money and time.

54. Negotiate a box or two to be delivered hot off the press if you have a tight deadline.

55. Sort the logistics ahead of time. Don’t be delayed because the printer didn’t know where to deliver.

Style and structure

Consistency and key

56. Use a style guide for consistency. If you don’t have one, find an appropriate one online and stick to it. If in doubt, use the Australian Government style guideand the Macquarie Dictionary.

57. Make subheadings meaningful, useful and engaging.

58. Plan a consistent heading hierarchy of 4-5 heading types.

59. Use white space, dot points, lists and title pages to:

  • break up information
  • make content easy to scan
  • highlight important information.

Working with a copywriter

Look for an experienced copywriter who can ask the right questions

60. Look for a copywriter with experience producing annual report content and managing deadlines.

61. Give your copywriter a clear brief including:

  • deadlines
  • style, tone of voice or branding guidelines already in place
  • your audience – who you’re speaking to and why
  • mandatory data or information
  • any draft content or if they need to research and write from scratch
  • if interviews are needed with key stakeholders.

Working with an editor or proofreader

A fresh set of eyes finds typos before your CEO does

62. Allow time for external proofreading of the first designed draft before it progresses for approval. Don’t keep your CEO or Board busy spotting typos.

63. Have a fresh set of eyes look through the basics – consistent headings, abbreviations, styles of dates and tables etc.

64. Provide the style guide you want the editor or proofreader to work with.

65. Be specific about the level of editing you want. Do you want an edit for consistency against the style guide, or do you want a substantial copy edit with wording changes?

Working with a graphic designer

Make it easy for the designer to understand your structure

66. Keep the design concept for the report ‘look and feel’ separate from the content design. Get the report cover and internal design signed off in parallel to content development.

67. As part of the initial briefing, explain which types of graphs, tables or charts you’re likely to need.

68. Don’t go near the designer with content until you have been through the first content proofread, edit and approval.

69. Supply content to the designer with heading styles defined in Word.

70. When reviewing the first design draft, consolidate all changes into one document. Check with the designer – tracked changes in a Word document or comments added to the PDF.

71. Plan for 2 rounds of changes. Expect 3-4.

Done and dusted

What worked and what didn’t 

72. Thank everyone who made it happen – staff, contributors, administrators, managers, external suppliers, CEO and Board members. You’ll need them again next year.

73. While it’s still fresh, find out from staff, suppliers and stakeholders what worked and what didn’t.

74. Note data or stats that were missing and set them up for next year.

75. Start next year’s annual report folder to add information and photos to all year round.

76. Take a moment to celebrate the achievement of getting an annual report published. Congratulations!

Use that content

Don’t let your content go to waste

77. Repurpose content through other channels. You can:

  • create some shareable images from standout quotes or stats
  • use case studies and profiles as LinkedIn articles
  • create infographics from cool data
  • use content as short video scripts to highlight achievements
  • use graphs, photos and charts for social media updates. 

Download the e-book (or ask a question)

This post was originally published as an e-book by Amanda Vanelderen from WorkWords (that’s Amanda’s copywriting business).