Don’t Dread the Annual Report; Make It Your Friend

If you are looking back on your year or biennium with dread, knowing that you now have to translate your accomplishments and impact into a massive annual report that integrates all the voices in your organization, try rethinking the product … and the process.

Annual reports have a terrible reputation for sitting on a shelf or languishing online and only occasionally being referenced. What you want is something that tells your organization or agency’s story, that makes your work come to life and encourages others to come on board. It should convey who you are and what you care about, both in words and images.

Yes, you will have to report your financial data. Yes, you will need an introductory letter from your CEO or other principal to set the stage. And yes, you will have to incorporate lists of your donors and funders. But beyond those mandatories, why not take your report out for a spin?

Unless you have a mandate for it to take a specific form or have a prescribed checklist — and if you do, why is that exactly? — asking yourself some tough questions can keep your report streamlined and easier to manage.

Planning the Report

“What does my audience absolutely need to know about what we did in this time period? What activities or accomplishments would inspire them to stay involved?”

It can be easy to fall into the trap of including everything but the kitchen sink in a report like this, especially if it’s the only opportunity to help some program areas or accomplishments come to life. But an annual report can’t and shouldn’t take the place of web copy, social media content, newsletters and other communication vehicles. Let those channels do their own work!

With that in mind:

  1. Be strategic in your content plan. Develop an outline that is approved by your leadership. Along the way, colleagues may approach you to add superfluous content that is important to them but no one else. Would you, as a reader, care about all that they are proposing? If the answer is no, stand your ground and say, “Not for this report.” The annual report shouldn’t be the catch-all.
  2. Show, don’t always tell. As you map things out, remember that you want your audience to feel like they are “there” — whether building a house for a low-income family, in the waiting room at a local health clinic, or at a high school voter registration event. To the extent that you have high-quality photographs of your staff rolling up their sleeves and doing the good work together, include them. Faces help us connect to content and value it.

Didn’t invest in a photographer this year? Put it on your list for next year. Nothing replaces authentic, quality images. Audiences are savvy and can usually tell when you take a shortcut through stock photography sites.

Assessing Your Draft

“What in this draft would I read and potentially engage with?”

If you struggle with this one, it’s time to make some revisions. Sometimes the problem can be the topics included and sometimes it’s as easy as the length.

  1. Don’t write long, write smart. Attention spans are diminishing. That’s why Vanguard’s editorial team always advises clients to focus on impact and not processes. After all, a report doesn’t have to equal an audit.
  2. You should focus on quality and not quantity, unless your goal in a particular area was related to quantity (e.g., hold a webinar each month). Even then, tie that number into something that matters for the big picture instead of just ticking a box, which is likely to inspire no one.
  3. Design for engagement. When you’re in the layout stage, make sure your design is balanced and easy to follow. Help readers process and prioritize information by using text boxes, subheads, infographics and other visuals.

Finalizing the Report

“Does this product convey who we are and why we exist?”

It’s OK to ask the hard questions, even late in the development game.

  1. Get a good editor. Whether it’s someone in your organization or a consultant you depend on, make sure to have that unbiased, unaffiliated point of view looking at your content — ideally throughout the process but always at the end. Writers can assume their audience knows more than they really do and the content can feel detached and out of context. Don’t make the audience connect the dots — do it for them, creatively!
  2. Also, write in plain language. It’s easy to copy and paste approved messaging points into a report, but make sure you’re saying exactly what you’d like to hear if you were in your audience’s shoes. Does it make sense? Does it cover too much? Does it reinforce why the organization exists? You’d be amazed at what taking out a few adjectives can do for readability.

If you’re feeling a bit lost in any stage of your annual report planning or development, don’t struggle unnecessarily. Reach out to me and let me know how we can help take the dread out of your annual report!