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Once upon a time…

Not all good stories have to start that way, but all good annual reports should tell a story.

Yep, it’s annual report time again.

But wait! Before you dive for cover, here are eight tips to help you tell the story behind the facts while still meeting reporting obligations.

And if you don’t have to produce an annual report, most of these tips can also add storytelling flair to any business document that describes your organisation and achievements.

1. Develop a project plan. 
Get this less-than-creative (but essential) task out of the way early so you can put more energy into the creative work.

Set out who is responsible for delivering what and by when. Work backwards from your publication or tabling date. Allow time to map out the report’s structure and content, seek input from subject matter experts, write or edit content, gain approvals, design and typeset, proofread and print the hardcopy version and design and build the electronic version.

For government agencies, check off your planned content against government reporting requirements (these guidelines are usually updated in June) and your Portfolio Budget Statement outcome, deliverables and key performance indicators. You may also have legislated reporting obligations to take into account.

And a reminder: from next financial year, the new Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 will affect reporting for all government agencies.

2. Identify key themes and messages.
Meet with senior people to nut-out themes and key messages. What was the main focus during the year? What were the top five achievements? Why? How did these achievements help realise your vision or intended outcome? What were the top five issues for the year? Why? What did you do about them? What are the key priorities for the coming year and what are you aiming to achieve?

Was it a watershed year, a year of reflection or consolidation, a year of significant change? Having an overarching theme and high level key messages gives shape to your story. It also informs design.

3. Set the scene.
Your Secretary, CEO or Chair’s introduction/review sets the scene and provides context for the story you are going to tell. In clear, concise and personalised language, this is your chance to summarise what you set out to do, what you achieved and what difference you made: the all important ‘So what?’ factor. This is also the place to acknowledge any significant issues and point to future directions.

4. Think like a journalist.
Take a news-style approach and lead with the most important and new information, followed by any necessary explanation or detail. This means people who only read the headings and first paragraphs will still take away your most important points.

Aim for catchy lead-in sentences that hook your readers and encourage them to read on. What is different, unique or new about what you have done? Is there a first (or highest, lowest, largest etc.) to report? Was there an anniversary or important milestone?  What’s the human interest angle?

5. Say it like it is.
Even though annual reports are formal documents, your language doesn’t have to be stuffy and bureaucratic. Aim for accessible, plain English. That means writing (or editing/rewriting) in a natural style, as if you were talking with a colleague or friend. It’s a much more effective and engaging way to communicate. It also uses fewer words, which helps keep your page-count down.

Imagining that you’re having a conversation also helps you think about who you are communicating with and what might be of interest to them. For example, your readers are probably less interested in the mechanics of your organisational restructure than how it affected the services you provide.

Being honest is also essential. You can blow your own trumpet—it’s your annual report after all—but it’s also good practice to acknowledge difficult issues, challenges and lessons learnt.

You can weave all this into your story by linking back to your overarching theme and key messages, reflecting on how the results of your activities affect people.

6. Break it up.
Organise your content into logically grouped, bite-sized chunks. Use meaningful headings and subheadings, short paragraphs and bullet points where appropriate. This helps readers scan and quickly absorb your main points (both online and printed).

7. Add personality.
Illustrate and personalise your story with case studies, profiles or features. Use these mini-stories as real examples of the difference your organisation has made. Where possible, feature real people. Direct quotes and engaging photography can also inject personality into your report.

8.  Get visual. 
Diagrams, charts and graphs help readers digest concepts and important information at a glance. Use them to showcase statistics or facts and then explain the detail in your text.

Pulling key phrases out of the text as highlighted quotes is another way of capturing attention and adding visual punch.

Infographics are an increasingly popular way to present complex information in an easily digestible way. Can you tell parts of your story this way? An example could be ‘The year in numbers’ highlighting key statistics or ‘The way we work’ demonstrating your stakeholder engagement approach or other processes central to the work you do.

Finally, here’s some advice from the Australasian Reporting Awards:

Good reporting requires an open willing attitude, attention to detail and accuracy, a sensitivity and responsiveness to stakeholders, a willingness to put in the effort to communicate effectively and a commitment to achieving and improving upon standards…The challenge for the person preparing the report is to interpret that information for their own organisation’s peculiarities and communicate it in a way that is effective for their stakeholders. 


And if you’re interested, there are more tips on writing key messages, using plain English and the power of pictures.


Need help to tell the story behind the facts in your annual report or corporate document? Contact us if you would like to talk about how we can help.


Cinden Lester has written several award-winning annual reports. She 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.


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