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   Home >> How to write annual reports
    Turning challenge into opportunity: Grabbing investors' attention

The investor community is inundated with annual reports. But let's face the truth: the majority of annual reports aren't read.

But many companies do actually have interesting stories to share with investors and analysts. And the annual report, if widely read, can become a critical vehicle for a company to disseminate its thoughts on strategy, market trends, and so on.

Therefore, the challenge here is to grab the attention of the investor community. How is this done? First, given the outpouring annual reports into the market, your report has to be visually eye-catching.

But a reader will soon be put off by even the most eye-catching report if the content is weak. This is where a writer with strong analytical skills plays the critical role.


  Asking the right questions


The most important question a writer must ask the client prior to starting an annual report project is, "What are the main messages you want to communicate?"

Examples of other important questions an analytical writer is advised to ask:

  • What are the main points you want to get across in your president's or CEO's letter?
  • What's the most impressive or important achievement that has happened to your company during the year?
  • How has this contributed to shareholder value?
  • What have been the most challenging problems facing the company?
  • What has been done to overcome or manage these challenges?
  • What key initiatives has the company rolled out?
  • Explain how these initiatives have created value for shareholders and employees?
  • Explain how the initiatives strengthen the company's competitive position?
  • What would you like to see your annual report accomplish better than the previous year's?
  • Has a specific focus or theme for this year's report been established? And, if so, what is it based on?
Asking the right questions, coupled with intensive research, enables a writer to produce analytical copy -- as a opposed to a descriptive one. Descriptive reports put off prospective readers.


  Familiarity breeds success  

The best way for a writer to become familiar with annual reports is to get hold of past copies produced by the client as well as its competitors. Studying the competition helps a writer generate ideas to help his/her client outshine them.

One section in the report that is usually presented up front and given a lot of attention is the letter signed by either the CEO or the president or the chairman. This letter sums up the year's activities and presents an overview of what the reader will read in the report.

Writing a report usually entails multiple meetings with the client, numerous telephone calls for fact-checking and follow-up questions, reading through and digesting a large quantity of printed information, writing a detailed outline, writing a first draft, and several revisions.


  Research is CRITICAL  

Information will primarily come from two sources: interviews with company executives and documents provided by the client, including the year's press releases.

Although interviews provide fresh information and additional insight not found in the printed materials provided by the client, I recommend the writer collect as much written documentation as s/he can. While interviews generate ideas, themes and slants, the nitty-gritty details and facts can usually be extracted from the documents.

The source material can include any the following:

  • previous year's annual report

  • any outline or preliminary layout developed for this year's report

  • copies of the corporate capabilities brochure

  • product and service brochures, equipment spec sheets, other product literature

  • the company catalog

  • all back issues of the company newsletter or magazine for that year

  • copies of significant speeches and presentations made by key company executives

  • videos and CD-ROMs

  • copies of all press releases issued that year
There is no predetermined "right" way, since no two assignments are the same.

  A series of steps...  

Annual reports shape up and come to life in different ways. But the following steps (although not always in this order) are usually involved:

  1. Initial project launch meeting.
    Once writer is awarded the assignment, s/he will meet again with the communications manager, who will later arrange for interviews with the relevant subject-matter experts and executives. This can go anywhere from two hours to a full day.

    The communications manager is likely to have already provided the writer with large amounts of background material to prepare for these interviews.

    A writer should be given one to two weeks to digest this material, ask additional questions and prepare a rough outline or table of contents for the annual report, to submit to the client for approval. The time length depends on the quantity of material that has to be read and the complexity of the client company.

  2. Primary and secondary research.
    The more the writer digs into the background material, the more questions s/he will have that are unanswered by it. The writer might ask for additional interviews to get answers. Alternatively, s/he can do these interviews by phone or e-mail. Primary and secondary research together should take one to three weeks and can be done while the client is reviewing the outline.

  3. First draft.
    The writer starts writing after s/he receives the bulk of the information s/he requires and the client's approval of the outline. Allow one to three weeks for this.

  4. Review.
    Many executives at the client company are likely to meticulously review the draft. All will have comments, many of which are likely to conflict with one another. It's the communications manager -- the writer's liaison within the client company -- that will have to resolve these differences. Why? The writer will get confused if varied and contradictory viewpoints are thrown onto her/him.

  5. Revision and second draft.
    The writer incorporates the comments, revises the copy and submits the rewritten draft, which again goes around for review. This takes at least another week

  6. Final draft.
    The writer might invest another week polishing, fine-tuning, filling in blanks, and adding photo captions. But it's best if the writer is allowed to pass on the draft to a copy editor, to do all this. A copy editor is less attached to the content than a writer is, thus being able to edit at a higher level of objectivity.

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