little boy with lots of books

Just found out you’re responsible for this year’s annual report?

Producing an annual report can feel like managing a room full of toddlers. There will be cajoling, possibly even pleading, threatening or bribing. There will be explaining, reminding, anticipating, interpreting, monitoring and problem solving.

A tantrum or two are not out of the question.

But before you burst into tears … be reassured that it is possible to successfully plan and manage an annual report without a meltdown. Follow these tips and you might even enjoy it.

Scope the requirements

Whether you’re in government or the private sector, there are specific requirements for annual reporting.

These are set out in the relevant legislation for government agencies and ASX-listed companies.  Australian Government departments must also follow the Requirements for Annual Reports and report against the outcome, deliverables and performance indicators in their Portfolio Budget Statements.

Make sure you understand what you have to say (must-haves), then you can start thinking about what else you want to say (nice-to-haves).

Understand your purpose

Are you producing your report to simply tick the accountability box, or do you want an effective marketing and stakeholder engagement tool as well? Your purpose will guide the type of report you produce. Will it be an engaging, compelling story about your organisation, what you do and what you achieved or a no-frills, short-and-sweet account of the year?

Know your audience

While the number of people who read your report cover-to-cover may be limited, important stakeholders will be interested. They could include agencies you partner with, broader stakeholder groups, MPs, parliamentary committees, shareholders and the media. Knowing who you’re talking to helps determine appropriate content and tone.

Identify the required skills

Do a skills audit to figure out what you can handle in-house and what you may need to outsource. Work through the key elements: project managing, writing, editing, designing, indexing, proofreading, printing, online publishing and distributing.

Allocate your budget

Identify how much you can spend on this report. Knowing your budget means you can set realistic expectations and direct available resources to where they are needed. For example, if you decide to manage the project in-house, you may dedicate some of the budget to external professionals such as a writer, editor, graphic designer or online publishing expert.

Get senior management buy-in

Meet with senior managers early in the process to talk about the purpose and benefits of good annual reporting. Seek their input about an overarching theme and general tone, the big ticket items that must be reported, and the emphasis they would like, including key messages.

Research what makes a successful report

Look at your organisation’s last few reports and review any feedback received. Look at what your contemporaries are producing and check out best practice, for example last year’s award winning reports. Think about what you like and what might work for your organisation.

Decide on your report’s structure

Work out a breakdown of your content, chapter by chapter, section by section. Make sure you include all your must-haves. The structure does not necessarily have to follow your organisational structure—think about a logical breakdown of information from the perspective of someone outside your organisation. You may want to create headings and subheadings for each section as well as for any case studies or other features. Then you can identify the subject matter experts responsible for each section of content. Don’t forget to top-and-tail with a contents list, glossary and alphabetical index.

Develop a detailed project plan

Work backwards from the date your report needs to be tabled or published. Allow enough time—plus some padding for inevitable slippage along the way—for each component. Not sure how much time each component will require? Ask people how long they will need. Then draw up your project plan and schedule, including:

  • requesting quotes and organising contracts
  • consulting with senior management on theme, tone and key messages
  • identifying subject matter experts/contributors
  • requesting contributions—options include developing a questionnaire or a template for contributors to fill in, interviewing people or simply asking them to update last year’s content (consider staggering this so that you can deal with different sections at a time rather than trying to handle all the content at once)
  • writing and/or editing content provided
  • checking facts and making changes—allow for several rounds of feedback as content makes its way up your hierarchy
  • getting approvals and sign-off (it’s a good idea to book time into your senior executives’ diaries to go through their feedback, as this also reinforce the deadline for approvals)
  • identifying available or required images, including photography
  • designing the report—brief your graphic designer early and work with them to conceptualise diagrams, case studies, infographics and other design elements that will enhance your report and help tell your story
  • indexing the report
  • proofreading the report
  • getting external approvals (e.g. ministerial, board)
  • preparing the online version
  • printing
  • tabling, publishing and distributing
  • debriefing.

Whether you use specialist project management tools and charts, Excel spreadsheets, or just plain old Word tables—clearly set out who has to do what and by when so that you can keep track of progress.

Agree on version control and approval protocols

Agree on how to name files and subject lines in emails. For example, email subject lines may be titled AR 2015 [subject of email] and working files may be called AR 2015 [chapter/section version# date]. A common filing system will help you quickly and confidently keep track of the myriad threads of your annual report project.

An agreed process for version control—such as making sure all feedback is added in track changes and into a single version of the document—is also essential. It can be helpful to send separate sections for detailed checking and formal sign-off before compiling the whole document when you are ready to start final approvals up the line.


Capture lessons learnt including what worked and what could work better. The debrief is also a good opportunity to start filing away ideas for content or structure changes. This gives you a head start on next year’s report.

Oh, and don’t forget to celebrate your achievements with your colleagues!

Others articles in this series:

 And previously published:


Cinden Lester has more than 25 years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and communications specialist—having worked as a broadcast journalist, in private sector marketing and public relations, and in government communications before establishing her own Canberra-based communications consultancy.

Contact Cinden if you’d like some help with your annual report.


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