An annual report includes a lot of the same information as a corporate brochure, but with some key differences.
First of all, an annual report contains the company's financial statements for the year. In fact, that is technically what an annual report is: the financial statements that public companies must file with the Securities and Exchange Commission. All the promotional stuff singing the company's praises is extra and not required. However, companies can't resist an opportunity to promote themselves.
Because of this unique duality, an annual report is often divided into two sections. The first section features information about the company — very much like a corporate brochure but focused primarily on the year's achievements. The second part contains the auditor's report and financial statements. As a copywriter, you don't have to worry about the latter. (What a relief!) If you're asked to write an annual report, your job is limited to the first section only — basically everything before the section called Management Discussion & Analysis (MD&A). Unlike a corporate brochure, which can be organized any number of ways, the structure of an annual report is much more standardized:
A front cover, often with a tagline or theme that relates to that given year.
A page that highlights the year at a glance, often with lots of charts and graphs. Sometimes five-or even ten-year summaries are featured to show a trend.
A one-page company profile, including a mission or vision statement. Timelines with key milestones may also be included. Again, this is to show a trend that the company is growing and has a track record of success.
A letter from the president or chairperson. This is often called “Letter to Shareholders” and is usually one to four pages.
Several other pages of content that is similar to what you would expect to find in a corporate brochure.
Annual reports are categorized as investor relations, which is a distinct communications field. Sometimes an investor relations agency will handle the annual report project, or someone inside the company may take on the job. Investor relations is all about keeping shareholders happy with the company they have a stake in, as well as attracting new investors to the fold.
Creating the Book
The most challenging aspect of an annual report is writing the opening letter from the company president or chairperson. Since you're ghostwriting for the big boss, a lot of people will be vetting your copy. You may also have to interview the president or chairperson to determine what he or she wants to say to the shareholders. If you're not used to dealing with senior management, this can be a little intimidating. Don't worry. Just ask your questions and take good notes. Most executives are surprisingly down to earth.
Here are some useful annual report writing tips to follow:
When ghostwriting the president's or chairperson's letter, don't make him or her sound distant, formal, or aloof. Make the tone friendly, open, informative and, most importantly, confident.
Don't dance around controversial issues, such as poorer than expected financial results or being involved in labor strife. Present the facts clearly and directly. Show that the company is dealing with issues openly and with an intelligent plan of action.
Avoid inadvertently predicting the future. For example, don't say in an annual report that “This new product is certain to seize substantial market share when it is launched next year.” That statement may be misleading. Instead, position any forward-looking statements — the term the investment community uses — as plans rather than predictions. For example, “This new product is designed to meet a growing demand in the marketplace.”
Annual reports are prestigious projects within the realm of marketing communications. Writing one will definitely be a feather in your cap. So enjoy the experience!