The written wordby Reg Pauffley
It's my view that a majority of annual reports fail to communicate or engage with the reader. Most are written in a language that I refer to as 'annual report speak', a financial legalistic language that automatically assumes that the reader has a PhD in finance and already possesses an in-depth knowledge of the company, what it does and the markets that it operates in.
I appreciate fully that the annual report is a statutory requirement that is produced to report on the company's performance during the previous financial year, but it also provides one of the best opportunities for a company to communicate to its wide range of stakeholders. So why don't more companies use this opportunity to tell the company's story in a well written, easy to understand, compelling and engaging manner that will not only provide greater understanding about the company and its business, but will capture the imagination of the readers too?
For one of the best examples of what I'm talking about I need to take you back ten years, to the 2000 IBM annual report, which in my view is a true benchmark for how an annual report can be written (the report ranked n°1 in the Annual Report on Annual Reports 2001). To me it's inspirational.
To give you a taster, the front cover is used as an introduction to the report (something not that frequent, by the way), and this is what it says:
You're one page away from the no-holds-barred story of one year in the life of a company. It's the story of big battles, stinging defeats and gritty comebacks.
Unexpected alliances, daring forays and game-changing discoveries.
In many ways, it's a story about the future, as well as the recent past, and about all business today. Which means it's about e-business. And one in particular.
And the story continues on Page 1:
The story of IBM is really many stories.
We're opening up new markets and extending our lead in others. We're fighting back in businesses we pioneered and changing ourselves in some fundamental ways. Last year, we absorbed our share of hits, too. But we won more than we lost. And closed the year on a high note.
All the while, we've kept working, inventing and partnering to write the next chapter of the story we started five years ago. The story of e-business.
So, while this year's report is not a simple narrative, it does yield one singular theme. It's ultimately the story of hundreds of thousands of people tackling scores of the toughest business and technological challenges over 12 intensely challenging months.
It's one story we're proud to tell.
I strongly urge you to take the time to download and read the front section of the report (go to ftp://ftp.software.ibm.com/annualreport/2000/pdf/IBM2000E.PDF).
Note that it's not just about two pages. The fifty pages of narrative were up to it, of the same writing quality and with an overall straightforward message.
I would also like to point you in the direction of two other, more recent reports that I feel are well worth looking at too.
Firstly, The Rezidor Hotel Group 2008, is written in an excellent 'business magazine' style (go to www.rezidor.com - investor & media - financial centre - annual reports - 2008 - download 2008 pdf).
And then there's WPP 2008 (and previous years) annual report, which after all should impress, it's one of the world's largest advertising and marketing groups and will have plenty of good copy writers to call upon. The report has a great fast read section at the front (go to www.wpp.com - investor centre - Financials - Annual Reports - 2008 - download pdf).
These are just three examples from a number that I could have chosen, but I hope these will really stimulate your thinking, especially amongst the report writers.
I'd be interested to hear what you think about these reports and even more your views about the quality of writing in annual reports generally.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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