It’s annual report season, and lots of writers are struggling right now with what to say and how to say it. These days, annual reports are much more than just an SEC requirement for shareholders, they‘re also used for marketing, to promote brands and to recruit and engage employees. And, of course, they’re also created for online consumption, which creates a range of visual opportunities unavailable in print. That’s a tall order.
With such a broad scope, the tendency is to do and say too much. It’s better to stick to three or four key messages that you want your audiences to absorb, supported by a mix of facts and stories. So your content must be targeted, with a clear result in mind.
Unfortunately, a lot of business writing is bad for three big reasons:
- First, organizations are afraid to say something that might be construed negatively. So the report ends up being approved with little value for the audience, without attracting attention. That’s fine if you only want to demonstrate that your organization conforms to preconceived notions.
- Second, the material is just a collection of business clichés. Take the phrase “full-service solutions provider.” A search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using the term. “Cost effective end-to-end solutions” generates 95,000 results. Provider of “value-added services” nets you more than 600,000 matches. I rest my case.
- Third, things can go badly if you try to impress your readers. A writer for the Financial Times gave out an award called “Outstanding Services to Bunkum” to Burberry for this annual report oddity that can only invite ridicule:
“In the wholesale channel, Burberry exited doors not aligned with brand status and invested in presentation through both enhanced assortments and dedicated, customised real estate in key doors.”
So, what if you actually want to say something, change minds or inspire action? Whole books have been written on the subject, but here are some thoughts.
1. Write, rewrite and rewrite again.
Your first draft should be a simple list/outline to help you get your arms around the material you want to cover. Next, get those points into some sort of coherent narrative. Then clean it up – streamline, choose words carefully and make sure it flows from point to point to keep the writing vibrant. Then get someone to check it and edit it.
2. Are you really going to use the word “synergy”?
Aren’t we getting tired of reading words like “synergize,” “leverage solutions” or “exit a door not aligned with brand status?” UK Editor and blogger Patrick Neylan said it best: “Clichés are the calling cards of a mind that has stopped thinking for itself and is using thoughts that are off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all, microwave-for-three-minutes-for-a-delicious-individual-meal. Clichés are verbal clip-art, which means mediocrity. If you are familiar with seeing a word or phrase in print, don’t use it.”
3. Paint mental images
Imagery brings prose to life and paints pictures in the mind. It also reveals a lot about the company’s attitude. If a pharmaceutical company or hospital says it is “delivering healthcare,” it sounds like healthcare is a commodity. Patrick Neylen hits the nail on the head again: “Their language implies that the personal, human activity of caring is beneath their dignity and a long way from their thoughts. Try to use words that have literal, rather than abstract, meanings. Try to picture it, and ask yourself if the picture makes sense.” In the healthcare example, it would be more human to simply talk about providing patients with needed care or meeting patient needs or improving patient health.
4. Write simple sentences
Keep your sentences short and simple, but not so short that they become staccato. Keep the verb close to its subject, and always choose a short word instead of a long one. Avoid technical jargon. As you edit, which you must do, delete as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, starting with ‘ongoing’.
5. Use strong, active verbs
“Verbs are the engine of language. Nouns are the cargo; adjectives and adverbs the packaging.” If you overload your prose with heavy nouns and drive them with weak verbs, then your writing “will plod along like an old lady lugging twelve bags of shopping.” Mr. Neylen compares the sporting cliché ‘it’s a must-win game’ with ‘we must win this game’ to make the point. Why is the second sentence so much more dynamic? Compare the verbs: ‘is’ versus ‘must win’. Compare the subjects: ‘it’ versus ‘we’. By saying ‘we’, the second speaker is focusing on himself and his team, while the first speaker is looking at the game as a distant, abstract thing. The first speaker has turned the important thing – ‘must win’ – into a feeble adjective. The second speaker has made it the main verb.
Like all good writing, annual reports should be clear and persuasive and show personality. It’s not easy to do, but if you take the time and care, your writing will have impact. Having written dozens of annual reports, I’m happy to help.