The RY guys know everything there is to know about clever design, so here I'm going to focus on what a professional copywriter can bring to the project.
Using a copywriter will add value to your report by creating a compelling investment case and by making sure that the report is an accurate, easily-understood and engaging account of your company, its last 12 months and its prospects for the years ahead. Good writing engages and compels. It can change minds, challenge perceptions and deliver messages.
Surely, using a professional is a no-brainer? Yet some companies still believe that their own teams should be able to write the annual report. After all, anybody can write, right? Other clients are driven by financial concerns. They decide to cut corners and save the relatively miniscule portion of the budget that was earmarked for making sense of the entire project. In one swoop, this ensures that the company will never get the full value of its huge investment in design, print and digital, not to mention the many hundreds of working hours put in by its own people.
A credible story, well told
Yes, it takes time for an external writer to get to grips with a business. But the outcome, in terms of people understanding and engaging with the report content, more than repays the investment. By people, I don't just mean the heavyweight institutional investors. There's an argument that these individuals know their stuff inside out anyway and will check the figures in the back-end before, or instead of, looking at the front-end. But the other important audiences? The retail investors who want reassurance about their life savings... the customers and suppliers who want to know exactly what you stand for... the employees who want to feel proud of the part they play for you... the media and NGOs keen to understand your strategy on sustainability or governance... for all these people, the way you tell your story speaks volumes about your organisation.
Trust and authenticity are important considerations here. Lay out the year in all its glory, not forgetting to acknowledge aspects that were not perfect - the best way to win trust is to demonstrate it in action, not just talk about it. Make credible claims and back them up with facts. You're creative entrepreneurs... or committed to reducing environmental impact... or passionate (awful word, by the way) about something or other? Prove it. Tell people about it. Another point about style - try to make sure the 'voice' of the report reflects your company. If you're a tech business that's admired for being quick-witted, vibrant and sometimes even irreverent, don't use language or syntax that makes you appear too formal. And vice-versa of course.
The exception to the consistency rule
On the subject of 'voice', I'd like to see more first drafts of CEO and Chair statements actually authored by the individuals concerned, with the comms team and the writer then working together to polish it without losing its distinctive, authentic tone. Many stakeholders, from major investors to employees, will know these people personally. They'll be familiar with the way they communicate and will spot a bit of corporate glove-puppetry a mile off. In fact the statements which are signed off by named individuals are, in my view, the only places where a report should vary in style or tone. The rest of the report, from the contents page through to the directors' report and beyond, should communicate with a single, consistent voice.
So, where to begin in the search for a writer?
Designers work with a lot of writers and know which ones are best suited to particular projects, so ask your consultancy for advice. Also, decide whether you want to work direct with the writer (and be responsible for their fees) or let the consultancy handle that for you. Either way, somebody should check the chosen writer's availability well in advance, several months ahead if possible as good ones are in high demand during annual report season.
Once you've decided to work with a copywriter, what are your options? From my perspective, most annual reports fall somewhere on the spectrum from light-touch editing of a few key pages drafted by the client (least input) to gathering all content via interviews and research, and then writing original copy for the full report (most input). In between lie a multitude of options, with the one you prefer obviously being influenced by factors including budget, timing, objectives and the extent to which the notion of an external writer lies outside the corporate comfort zone.
Brief the writer well and provide background reading such as last year's report (with a breakdown of where you want to see improvements) and any relevant corporate presentations. Then schedule interviews as appropriate. These could include the CEO and Chair, divisional heads, HR and sustainability execs and so on, depending on the scope of the project. Allow the writer sufficient time to create a first draft, then provide timely feedback. The second draft should in most cases be 95% there, with the last 5% being finalised closer to the end of the process, usually but not always when the copy has been flowed into the design. This isn't an exact science. All organisations have their different wrinkles and ways of working - most writers will be flexible and tailor their services to meet your needs.
The world is full of dull content that nobody has the time or the stamina to read. Please don't add to it. Hire a decent writer.
This is a part of a series of articles we are posting as part of the How Does It Stack Up? 2016 Report. To learn more about best practice corporate reporting, visit the How Does It Stack Up? page.