Creating annual reports?

Subject: Creating annual reports?
From: "Geoff Hart (by way of \"Eric J. Ray\" <ejray -at- raycomm -dot- com>)" <ght -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Sat, 6 Mar 1999 05:03:27 -0700

Valorie Lennox has <<...just agreed to create the company's annual
report. I need to figure out exactly how I'm going to do that.>>

Believe it or not, it's only intimidating the first time round--and
that's speaking as a 6-year veteran of the process. Is it safe to
assume that your company already has some old reports lying around
somewhere? If so, use them to get a feel for what the company
considered important in the past. Then scour the local financial
magazines or talk to local investment advisors; most offer free
copies of annual reports from a variety of companies. Use all these
reports for inspiration. Here's the outline of the rest of the

The first thing you'll need to do is figure out what your legal
requirements are; if you're a publicly traded company, for example,
your financial reporting requirements are much more stringent than if
you're a private, nonprofit research foundation. Undoubtedly you'll
have some sort of audited financial statement by the folks who do
your taxes, and you'll need to provide some or all of this
information in your report. The goal of this exercise is to prove
that you're responsible managers of the money invested in you, which
also suggests you need to decide how expensive to make the report
(e.g., four-color printing with gold foil stamps and glossy paper
vs. a humble two-color design). I've moved our financial statement
from a 5-page job "summary" [sic] with legalese from the auditors to
a 1-page summary with a promise that copies of the auditor's report
are available on request. I think our board members are the only ones
who have ever asked to see the full details.

The next thing you need to do is to get your senior management to
decide on an overall message (e.g., environmental responsibility,
hi-tech leadership). Your company probably has "mission" and "vision"
statements that need to be included somewhere, and these may give you
a good starting point for a theme; for example, FERIC's mission
speaks of cost, quality, and the environment, so we usually try to
cover all three. With the message in hand, you can research what your
company has been doing over the past year to support that message.
Interview a few managers or research directors to get a long list of
stories, then cut this down to a manageable list. Get a feel for how
long you must be; we typically produce 24 pages, of which up to half
describe our research (including a list of publications and lots of
graphics) and 3 or 4 pages list the members of our advisory
committees (about which, more later). I don't believe anyone reads
long reports, and short reports look like you don't care enough to do
the work, so for me, 24 pages is reasonable.

There are obvious implications of the message for both the content
(what you say) and the design; for example, if you're emphasizing
environmental responsibility, then it's kind of embarassing to print
on nonrecycled paper, and if the message is hi-tech, you don't want
too many manual typewriters scattered about the report.

You'll have to think carefully about how to handle what I call the
"acknowledgments" parts of the report. Most companies have a board of
directors or various advisory committees, and these people usually
need to be acknowledged. But this leads to a far more important
question: should the report be impersonal ("IBM did") or personal
("Fred did")? Over the years, I've moved our report from very formal
and stiff and distant to something much more personal and friendly...
but with full management support.

Speaking of which, move slowly on changing the style. Our early
reports were painfully stiff and dull, and although a certain measure
of professionalism is required, this was carrying things to extremes.
Yet I didn't want to produce _People Magazine_ overnight. So over the
past few years we've _gradually_ changed the appearance and writing
style to something more interesting and informal, yet without
sacrificing professionalism. Eventually, we want to produce something
really playful (e.g., breaking out of the grid, more use of color,
more irreverent prose, etc.), but that's a slow process.

If you want to see the results of this, you can check out our Web
page ( Last year's reports are available (HTML only, I
believe), and are based on the design ideas I mentioned above, but I
make no claims about the quality of what's there: I didn't edit last
year's report (we alternate production responsibilities between our
two divisions), and I didn't produce that part of our Web site. The
98/99 reports will probably be up in a few weeks in PDF format, and I
like them a whole lot better.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Patience comes to those who wait."--Anon.

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