Mission possible: the perfect annual report process

Mission possible: the perfect annual report process

Annual report season is nearly over and, no doubt, there were moments when you wondered whether it was all going to end in tears.

Somehow or other, though, either through a Herculean effort or just plain old unexplained magic, that document got printed and loaded online.

Office post-mortems will undoubtedly be underway, discussing all the ways the next annual report season “needs to be so different”.

Maybe I can help with that.

Some time ago, a client asked me to assess a previous year’s annual report.

At first glance, I knew two things: an editor/writer hadn’t been involved, and neither had a designer.

It was clearly one of those jobs where the project manager had gone straight to a printer for a quote on a one-stop job.

The text had obviously been birthed by about six authors and edited by none. And they had no idea who they were writing for. The design was – at most generous – uninspired.

Conclusion: that annual report met its basic compliance requirement, but lost an opportunity to present itself as a branding and positioning flagship.

It had been produced as cheaply as possible, but even that had likely become inflated due to continual rounds of text amendments.

In short, anything and everything that should be done hadn’t been.

Does any of that experience resonate? For most of us, I’m sure it won’t – we’re all very organised these days. Right?

But you may be ready for some tips that will make your next annual report experience an even more effective and less stressful process.

These are my top 10:

  1. Review previous annual reports, and those of your competitors and peers, for strengths and weakness and (your) opportunities. What features do you love?
  2. Identify and survey key stakeholders on the potential theme and key message selection: Chair, CEO, senior managers, manager, supervisors, staff and a selection of external stakeholders. Find out what they like, don’t like about the AR – ask their thoughts on themes and key messages.
  3. Agree on the theme and key messages and lock in with client approval at the highest level.
  4. Identify all content – from front cover to back cover. Ensure you know what department or section the content is coming from for every page.
  5. Develop brief and issue a request for quotes on design, photography, printing and the digital version from service providers. Incorporate the theme and key messages into the design brief. (Note: theme and key messages inform the design process, not the other way around.) Identify every photograph that needs to be taken or sourced.
  6. Develop reporting (content) template and word count and circulate to authors. An approach that works well is this: Ask authors to respond to: “Who are we? What do we do for you? How did we perform for you this year? What were some of our achievements? What benefits did we deliver? What are we working on next? (I can attest to this approach with three consecutive awards from the Australasian Reporting Awards – Activ annual report 2006-2008.)
  7. Edit content to “speak with one voice” – the template responses will have guided everybody to stay on subject and within the word Editing for one voice then becomes a simpler task.
  8. Draft VIP content,e. patron, chair, CEO etc. An approach that works well is to structure the patron’s letter at a “global” level, chair at an industry level and the CEO at a business unit level.  The patron’s letter can be drafted on this basis, while the chair and CEO messages will benefit from interviews in the development of their content.
  9. Content sign-off at CEO level. Note: content has still not been laid into the design at this point. It is still in a Word doc. This is possibly the point in the process that will make or break the budget and deadline. If the ultimate client (possibly the minister accountable) insists on going to artwork before content sign-off, then the budget will go out the window in a ceaseless round of expensive artwork amendments. If the ultimate client can be persuaded to sign-off text at word doc stage along with the design visuals, the rest of the process will be a dream.
  10. Review artwork for style consistency. I like to print and lay pages out in double-page spreads to create a helicopter perspective that examines for design/style inconsistencies.

Final words: Project management is often an imperfect science, and the plan is often tossed out the window as soon as the first tasks begin. Flexibility, adaptability, patience and a belief it will all work out are faithful companions. Take them with you on the journey.

Let’s not forget this applies mostly to commercial businesses. For public listed companies and government organisations, on the other hand, there is a different set of guidelines and structure to annual reports that one has to follow. We understand that and have methods that will help you, let’s talk about that.

Ray Sparvell is a senior consultant with contentgroup. He conservatively estimates to have project managed more than 80 annual reports and still has some hair left.


Also published on Medium.


Ray has a depth of experiences with communications always at the core of his daily discipline. He has promoted the military, diamonds, fashion, digital disruption innovations and more. In his spare time Ray has trekked high into the Himalayas, practised martial arts for 20 years, and written two books. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Writing.

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