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Why your annual report isn’t wowing shareholders (and what to do about it)

By Jacqui O'Brien by Jacqui O'Brien 6 min read

Too many companies approach annual reports like one of those “necessary evil” tasks; producing them is time-consuming, arduous and, of course, no one ever expects the final product to be either fun or interesting! But, that’s where it all goes wrong – because low expectations often lead to lacklustre results.

So, our message here is this: pick up your game and take a positive approach right from the get go because a spectacular annual report really could do amazing things for your business. Not convinced? This report shows how some of the most successful annual reports have managed to become “viral” achieving thousands of social shares. Topping this list, one of Kickstarter’s annual reports scored an incredible 15,212 shares over the year after it was published.

If our timing is a little off and you’ve already produced this year’s annual report, don’t worry, because this is all about how you can review your report for some common mistakes to avoid next time. Alternatively, if you’re yet to get around to it – great – because you’ll soon see how you can side-step these usual annual report blunders by injecting little bit of pizzazz.

There’s not much to look at!

Often, annual reports make the mistake of telling people far too much with lengthy chunks of text. Sure, that might sound odd, after all, it is a “report”, but trust us, it’s far more effective to show people things than tell them.

Essentially, this is about raw human nature. Many people are put off and experience heightened cynicism when they feel they are being told what to think and believe. Relevant eye-catching images will back up comments while dynamic elements such as infographics, diagrams, charts and graphs can enable audiences to easily perceive concepts, facts, trends and context – all the tools needed to draw their own independent conclusions. And if you’ve done the job well, they’ll be the right conclusions too!


Failing to tell stories

The most engaging annual reports (especially those that go viral) use persuasive stories as a vehicle for illustrating organisational achievements or even explaining the strategic direction of the business. In other words, a story is a strong and consistent narrative that should underpin key concepts in your report.

Need inspiration? Why not think about how your company could be kicking new financial goals by changing the lives of customers, how it’s engaging people inside and outside the business, or even, how the company is contributing to social change and what lies ahead. In each case, comments from employees, the CEO and a variety of case studies could all help to tell these persuasive real-life stories.

To understand why stories are so important to keeping audiences on a positive track, take a look at this shareholder’s criticism of a Harvey Norman annual report:

I’d really like to know how satisfied franchisees are with factors that matter to them, such as the amount of support they receive from the head office.

Are the franchisees likely to keep sustaining the company? The number of franchisees fell this year from 696 to 677. Was this due to dissatisfaction? What’s the story?


It doesn’t pass the skim test

Most people who receive your report will be extremely busy, which means it’s unlikely they’ll have time to read your report word-for-word. Simply, a report that isn’t easy to navigate or doesn’t help the reader to glean key information and understand concepts quickly isn’t likely to deliver the desired impact. There are a few things you can do to ensure all those key messages come flying off the page at super speed (and with minimum effort).

Start by making sure all the information contained is appropriately segmented (colour coding is highly effective!) and logically ordered with subheadings that indicate exactly what the reader will learn. Then, pull all the key facts and figures to the front by using break out boxes or incorporating them into graphics. Lastly, with the human brain processing visual data 60,000 times faster than text, be sure you’ve made the most of visual tools such as infographics, diagrams or even animations to explain those key concepts. Following a few rules like these will also make your report (or at least parts of it) highly shareable on social media too.


So what?

Report creators generally have a lot of information and insights at their fingertips, but the problem is, many of them fail to understand what information is worthy of inclusion and what could be left out. Readers could very quickly become disengaged by a report if they think finding relevant information is like hunting for a needle in a haystack. What’s more, a reader experience like this could bring down the credibility of the entire report.

The best way around this is to put yourself in the target’s shoes and consider whether every bit of text and every image and infographic has a point to deliver, otherwise – strike it out!


Where are the real people?

It’s true – us human beings are social creatures which means people generally love to see and hear about other people! It also means annual reports that churn laboriously through facts and data without showing how they involve or relate to real people can quickly become a “turn off”.

It’s easy enough to make a report much more personable. Choose language that resonates with your target audience throughout and don’t be afraid to include images, profiles and testimonials of customers and employees at every opportunity.

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