For many copywriters used to short-form writing – flyers, pamphlets, web pages, advertising material – just the thought of writing an annual report triggers a cold sweat.
And, let’s face it, that cold sweat is probably justified – annual reports can be daunting, time consuming, frustrating and an annual pain in the rear end.
But with the right preparation and planning, they can also be a reasonably lucrative way to make a buck, and a great addition to your CV. They don’t have to be a pain in the backside.
Writing annual reports made easy
When it comes to annual report writing, it is the job of the copywriter (and designer) to add some pizazz to what is fundamentally a governance requirement (but can be an awesome marketing tool as well).
So if you are faced with an annual report project, here are a few things to ask the client before you even start to write (or even prepare your proposal)
What’s the budget?
There’s no point planning a massive, glossy printed publication, with creative (read expensive) photography if the budget only allows for a downloadable PDF using stock images. And if you need to produce some printed copies, make sure you leave enough in the budget for this – keeping in mind that the fewer copies you print, the greater the cost per copy.
What’s the deadline?
In most cases, annual reports will need to be tabled in parliament, or presented to the Board and shareholders on a specific day. Talk to the client and the designer about when they will need final copy and work backwards from that.
Am I expected to project manage the whole shebang?
Some clients prefer to engage either the copywriter or designer to also project manage the report. If so, you need to add a lot of faffing time to your quote. And make sure that the client and subject matter experts in the organisation understand and respect that your role is more than writer or editor.
What content has to be included (and what would be nice to include)?
Different types of organisations have different legal obligation to report on a bunch on non-financial stuff – like equal opportunity employment, sustainability programs, Board meetings and sub-committees and so on. It’s important to be across the most recent requirements – so make sure the client fills you in.
And be aware, these can change at any time.
Who is providing raw material?
Will you be expected to interview various people within the organisation to get the information needed? Or will you be given dot points? Or a mixture of both (which is most common). While the latter seems simpler, the former is sometimes better for efficiency – that way you are not waiting on busy people to provide you with the details you need.
Getting started with the content
Once you have all the above sorted, your proposal has been submitted and accepted, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty.
First, you need to work with the client to develop a theme and structure for the report. Often, they just follow whatever has been down before, but sometimes, they want to shake things up a bit. Do a bit of google searching to find annual reports of big companies to have a look at what works and what doesn’t and to familiarise yourself with their format.
Once the overall message has been defined, and a basic structure decided upon, these hints will help ease the burden of preparing the report.
Spreadsheets are your friend
The first step when writing an annual report is to chunk the report into chapters, or sections, then into subject headings.
Develop a spreadsheet that shows where you can find the information you need, who the subject matter expert is, who needs final sign-off and what the timeframe is.
Keep in mind of the final figures will only come to you at the last minute (after the bean counters have weaved their magic). Make yourself a spreadsheet that shows where you can find all the information you need, including who the subject matter experts are and who needs final sign-off (usually a senior executive).
Add a buffer to everything
Annual reports are strange beasts and tend to involve a lot of faffing – mainly because every man and his dog wants to put their two cents in. But just because they want a piece of it, does not actually mean they will respond promptly to requests. And when they do respond it will usually be to make changes for the sake of changes.
Then their boss will make changes, and their boss’s boss.
Then you will have to send another version around and the process will start again. They will even be trying to still make changes on the designer’s final proof. Then you will get an email from finance saying they want to check or change the numbers. So when you put together your spreadsheet or project plan, add a buffer. Then triple it.
Research, research, research
You need to immerse yourself in the organisation behind the annual report – research its core business, culture, history, achievements, competitors and more. Look over past annual reports and any other corporate or marketing documents.
Create an outline
An outline – with section headings, sub headings and content mapped out – is a great way to organise your thoughts. But more than that, it helps the experts understand the information you need from them. Send them chapter headings and dot points to spark their memory of what should be reported.
Get on good terms with the designer
When it comes to annual reports, or any other large project, the copywriter and designer need to be a well-oiled machine. You will both be working under pressure and you will both need someone in your corner from time to time. Sure, voices may be raised behind the scenes, but it is important to present a cohesive team to the client. That means backing each other up, and covering each other backsides. Designers have saved my butt more than once by noticing a glaring error that I had not picked up.
Time to relax
Now that you have out all these strategies in place, the prospect of writing editing or project managing an annual report, it won’t seem so daunting.
You can sit back, take a breath and start your checklist.
Over to you
Are you a dab hand at writing annual reports? Or does the thought of them make you break into a cold sweat. Would love to hear from you
Who is Nicole Leedham?
Nicole Leedham has been writing annual reports for a number of government, corporate and NFP organisations for nearly 20 years – and has the scars to prove it. Over the years, she has fine-tuned the process and no longer lets the thought of such big writing projects keep her awake at night. Wine also helps.
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