How to write an Annual Report

In a recent blog posting I pointed out that an organization’s Annual Report is an important competitive differentiator.

When I’m hired to help write Annual Reports I follow a number of steps to ensure success. Since these reports are, of course, an annual event, it’s a good idea to put systems in place that will serve the purpose year after year.

Tracking Report Components

The first step is to break the report down into component parts. Use a spreadsheet to keep track of the content and owners of each section. Define the overall message and list how each chapter in the report supports this. Use the spreadsheet as a guide for all the team members: graphic designers, content creators, subject experts, proofreaders and review staff. Make the spreadsheet as detailed as necessary, you might list:

  • Page numbers: As the project progresses keep track of each section by page number.
  • Themes: If you have multiple themes for the report, color code the spreadsheet to show which theme each section falls into.
  • Deadlines: for draft copy, design work, interviews, research, and more.
  • Roles and Responsibilities: for both freelance and staff members.
  • Estimated time to complete: useful to measure the overall cost of the project.

Make one person responsible for the spreadsheet and route all status updates through them.

The Discovery Phase

Gather preliminary information to enable the writers to draft the content. Use a 3-ring binder to store source material, with tab dividers for each section of the report. Sources might include:

  • Previous year’s report
  • Competitors reports
  • Executive speech transcripts
  • Interviews with subject experts
  • Website content
  • Product brochures
  • Press Releases
  • PowerPoint presentations
  • Analyst reports
  • News articles

These days, most of the content will be online, but a printout in a binder will help as you start to review and collate what you need as background for each section of the report.

You should also create a hierarchy of bookmarks in your browser, corresponding to tabs in the binder, to store relevant website information.

First Drafts

As early as possible, the writers will need to create outlines of each section which can be expanded into first drafts. A good working relationship between the in-house staff and the freelance writer is crucial at this point. It’s worth taking the time to spend a day meeting in person at the start of the project, or at least scheduling a videoconference on Skype or TelePresence so that everyone is operating from a position of trust. There will inevitably be challenges in communicating what the organization needs the report to say and how the writer interprets this. One major advantage of working with a freelance writer is that they bring a fresh pair of eyes to content that people inside the organization might be too close to.


I’m amazed at the similarities between writing speeches and writing Annual Reports. Both projects:

  • are highly visible and represent the overall company vision and strategy;
  • involve upper management in the approval cycle;
  • also involve a large team of support staff, from marketing and PR to legal and financial teams;
  • must find a balance between an overall message and supporting data, avoiding fluff while not boring everyone with facts alone;
  • inevitably involve many rewrites before the content meets corporate standards.

Again, an experienced freelance writer will be able to craft the 150-, 500- and 750-word versions of the text you’ll need on each topic. Indeed, like keynote speeches, a good Annual Report will contain material that can easily be re-purposed and used in sales and marketing presentations by staff throughout the year.

Online Versions

Wolters Kluwer 2001 Annual Report

While the printed Report might be distributed at the annual general meeting and mailed to shareholders, there’s a great opportunity to post content online. The least effective way is to have a downloadable PDF of the printed report. Consider hiring a savvy web designer and have them create a dedicated corner of your website where the content can come alive. Wolters Kluwer did just this for the online version of their Award Winning 2011 Annual report. You can also read the report in a dedicated iPad app.

2 Comments so far
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Hi, Ian –

Well-thought out process and article. I’m going to go check out that online annual report now.

You should also include performance measures.

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