Annual reports

Writers Who draft comprehensive, clear overviews and analysis of your company’s achievements, position and financial statements.

Writers Who’s guide to writing a riveting annual report

Once a year a company's attention turns to its annual report (an annual report details a company’s or organisation's finances, activities and achievements from the past year. It’s used to provide its investors, members or clients with a recap of all the central moments from the past twelve months).

It can be a consuming project for many parties, taking weeks to complete, and there's a lot riding on its professional production. A well written and visually stimulating annual report keeps stakeholders informed and inspires others to invest (if it’s a charity, it will compel donors to continue to contribute funds in a competitive sector). 

The central piece of information in these reports is generally the financial report – managed by the CFO or similar and audited before publication. This document is a guide to creating all the other sections of the report – the updates, letters, timelines, milestones and outline of plans for the future, all written to be understood by investors, business partners, stakeholders and the broader community. 

Your annual report isn’t just a financial statement, it can be a fantastic marketing platform capturing your company vision, mission and successes.

While an annual report is often a legal requirement, it needn’t be written in an entirely dry fashion. It’s an informational document, but it’s also there to tell an interesting story – to inspire and engage those who read it. It should highlight your organisation's achievements, showcase your successes and build trust.

Annual reports are typically publicly available or at least broadly distributed and must be easy to interpret for audiences not intimately involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation. This is one of the reasons it can be a great idea to ask an external agency to write yours for you (cough cough - like Writers Who) – they’ll have the distance needed to ask all the right questions to make your report impactful and clear for all readers. They’ll also be experts at writing and presenting your reports in the most engaging styles, while collating the information and having it verified and signed off along the way by the relevant parties.

Annual report writing inspiration

Writers Who have crafted many annual reports for clients. We love getting to the bottom of what makes an organisation tick, teasing out the most notable, material and compelling stories from the past year, and presenting them in an easy-to-understand format. These styles might inspire you.

  • We celebrated the many generous solutions provided to farmers and rural communities by Australia’s largest rural charity, Rural Aid FY21;
  • We delved into the activities of one of the largest community clubs in Sydney’s western suburbs, Richmond Club FY21 and FY22, and shared its vision for the future; and
  • We provided shareholders with an insight into the performance of publicly-listed diversified financial services company Yellow Brick Road.

What’s included in an annual report?

Every annual report will be different, depending on the business or organisation, but typically an annual report will include the following:

  • Title page 
  • Contents page
  • A letter from the CEO and/or chairman 
  • Business overview 
  • Between five and twenty feature or analysis articles of varying lengths reviewing key activities, projects, initiatives or achievements across the business 
  • Financial reports

And placed throughout you should have some easy-to-digest visualisations of data and figures, and images that illustrate the content you've written about.

Getting started

It’s sensible to set out what you want to achieve in your annual report, including the overall narrative and key messages. Here’s some advice before you get started.

  • You should designate around six to eight weeks to complete an annual report, with a view to having all written content completely approved before design commences.
  • Determine and refine the key messages with leadership: what do readers need to understand about the macro and micro factors impacting the business? What are the unavoidable topics you need to address head on? What are the successes you wish to share? What are the plans going forward you want readers to buy-in to?
  • Review previous editions of the annual report and provide updates on those projects, initiatives, business units since the last annual report. 
  • Once you know the key messages, start compiling a list of the the milestones, updates and moments that need to be included. Assign a level of importance to each of these in hierarchy order; this should be reflected in the wordcount and page inches assigned to each of those topics.
  • Identify the stories, anecdotes and analyses that aligned to those topics to illustrate them in a compelling way.
  • Identify the key spokespeople that need to be interviewed, or those who need to provide insights to the report.
  • Compile relevant data, images and information before drafting begins.
  • Plan an approval process and gather consensus on this before the project is drafted.
  • Commence the interviewing, drafting and crafting process (ideally using a professional writer or a consistent content creator across all stories to ensure consistency in the tone of voice and messaging).
  • Ensure all copy is finalised and approved before it’s turned over to the graphic designer as errors are more likely to occur in the edits via the graphic design process.
  • Appoint one or two editors, who have not been involved in the production of the annual report, to be accountable for final reviews ahead of publication.

Writing a contents page

The contents page of the annual report will outline what readers can expect to see in the annual report. It’s a great at-a-glance guide to what’s to come, and a handy way for you to see how the information will flow throughout the report. Take time to think about the names of each chapter. The overall narrative is outlined here - what is it that we want readers and stakeholders to take away about the company’s performance over the past twelve months and its plans for the coming years.

Writing a CEO or Chairman’s letter

The CEO or Chairman’s letter is the first piece of content that a reader will see and it will set the tone for the rest of the annual report.

  • These letters are typically 450-750 words in length and are written last, after all of the financials and individual reports on projects, milestones, business divisions and initiatives are complete. They provide an overview of the entire report.
  • Take time to understand the organisation's mission, vision and values, as these should be central themes in the letter and throughout the report.
  • So the letter convincingly sounds like it has been written by the CEO or Chair, have them complete a tone of voice exercise (here's one we created for our clients) and then review the document to understand how this person sounds, what they would and wouldn’t say, so you can replicate it. If they haven’t completed a tone of voice exercise, take a look at the previous year's annual report, search for any communications they’ve recently issued (particularly filmed speeches), check their LinkedIn, or transcribe any presentations they’ve recently delivered. All this will help you to get a sense of their voice, syntax, style and rhythm. 
  • Avoid making the letter sound too promotional. It needs to be an objective account of successes or failures towards key goals of the organisation. 
  • Ensure that your writing is informative and factual, and highlights the key achievements but doesn’t skirt over the challenges. 
  • It’s best practice to conclude the letter by looking to the future. What are the organisation's goals?

Writing the business overview

When it comes to writing an overview of the business, it’s presumptive to think that every person who reads the annual report will know a lot about the organisation. Some things we recommend including are:

  • A brief history or timeline of the organisation
  • Description of the organisation's objectives
  • Mission, vision and values
  • Profiles of the leadership team 

Writing the feature articles

A feature article in an annual report is just like any other article in that it should be a compelling read (you'd be surprised how many organisations skip this), informative, purposeful, have a narrative and be filled with quotes from relevant individuals. Feature articles are generally the place to tell your best stories and accomplishments from the year and really engage the readers. Here’s what to think about when writing these.

  • Your introduction should include the most relevant details that you’re looking to convey and explain what the feature will be about. Keep it concise, and 2-3 sentences per paragraph. Use headings and bullets to break up text – just like we are here. 
  • The middle or body of the article is where you expand on your introduction. Here, you should add additional context, figures and quotes from relevant stakeholders. Is there an expert that you can interview in the organisation about the topic?    
  • There are lots of places to source your stories. You may have internal use research tools you can use, and you could check out previous annual reports, local or trade news reports, industry data, media reports (Factiva can be great for these), and blog content. 
  • Your conclusion will summarise and round out the information that you’ve included, and could also outline the vision for the future.

General tips for an effective annual report

  • Keep it focussed. You can’t cover every single thing that’s happened in the year, and you shouldn’t. You don’t want your report to become unwieldy. So focus on your main accomplishments and achievements rather than every single activity. You can create a series of brief items of around 150 words each in a column format or compartmentalised graphic design should you wish to include a couple of topics that don't deserve a full feature on their own.
  • Mix up the formatting. Intersperse dense blocks of text with figures, tables, images, illustrations and visuals. And don’t forget the usual readability importance of breaking up copy with headings to guide the reader and bullet points. Could you present some of it as video? An interactive digital document, like Rural Aid's? You don’t necessarily have to stick to print unless you're obligated by regulation or legislation. Make sure the design is visually appealing, professional, and reflects your brand. 
  • Write in your brand tone of voice. To really tell your story, the annual report must reflect your tone and values. It’s a good idea to have someone who really understands your tone to do a final edit, particularly if lots of people have been involved in writing it. If you don’t have someone internally, or don’t have the time, we can easily fine-tune your annual report to reflect your tone. 
  • Don’t forget to thank those who’ve helped throughout the year. It’s a good opportunity to acknowledge team members, organisations, and advocates for their support. 
  • Appeal to people’s human side. People often make decisions based on both emotions and facts – even when it comes to business. So include personal, emotive stories where possible. 

Finalising the annual report

Reviewing your copy is an unmissable last step before submitting. Your eyes will likely be weary of it by the time it goes to print. Because lots of people contribute to an annual report, mistakes and inconsistencies can creep in (and plenty of cooks like to tinker with the broth at the eleventh hour). Once you feel that you’re finished, read it over again checking for typos or errors. Are all the facts correct? Appoint an official editor or proofreader (someone who hasn't been heavily involved in its creation) to review the final copy before you publish it. A report littered with typos and inconsistencies will do your organisation no favours.

It’s common for our eyes to become blind to errors in our own work. Hearing the words out loud can help you to check that everything reads okay and makes sense. Paste your copy into a text to speech generator to hear how it really sounds. We routinely do this at Writers Who, even for a piece as short as a press release.

Outsourcing your annual report to professional writers

Pulling together an annual report can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. While you may have the right people within the organisation to inform the content, they may not have the time or skills to dedicate to expertly crafting such a significant piece of writing as an annual report. Your annual report isn’t just a legally required financial statement, it can be a fantastic tool for telling the story of your organisation – and it makes sense to harness this opportunity.  

If you need some help bringing your annual report to life, and making the most of the opportunity it presents, Writers Who are experts in crafting clear, inspiring, insightful reports that will tell your story and really make an impact. 

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