In which a writer considers the necessary death of annual reports


I sent in the column to the editor and turned my mental back burner to low fret. Just because I get to write about anything I want to write about does not mean that the editor is going to like it.

She made me wait a few days. “I like it! One minor change. One.”

And it wasn’t a substantive change, it was for clarification.

What exactly did I do right? I didn’t dwell on that too much: if the editor says she likes it, and has a single line change on a 1,500-word magazine column, who am I to argue?

I made the change and sent it in. Invoice to follow.

As I was planning other writings and researching that needed to get done the phone rang. On the other end was a slightly panicked client I’ve never had asking if I would please do a copy editing job.

Let me explain the client I’ve never had.

I do some volunteer work and over the course of this volunteer work I mentioned that I’d be happy to help out in the office with some writering type things, corporate communication type things, planning type things, organizing type things. In other words, I was willing to use all the experience I have, in the name of volunteering and helping out. At least, I thought I was.

How I helped out in addition to volunteering was by attending meetings and teleconferences and interviews where they picked my brain. Suggestions, ideas; what did I think. Please. How boring is that? Very, as it turn out.

Do not do what I did. I was giving it away for free, people, and that is never, ever, ever a good thing to do. Once upon a time ago it was a very good thing to do. Not any longer. Giving it away for free supports the whole evil ethic that’s making the rounds in business of doing more with nothing, which is partly why everything is being shipped off to China and India. Even freelance business and product writing, by the way. But I digress.

Because the client I’ve never had sounded desperate, and because this organization plays such a critical role in the community, how could I say no? I couldn’t. I didn’t. But I did ask questions:

1. What style guide do they follow? CP Style or government style or a hybrid?

2. What are the key messages of the annual report?

3. Who’s the audience? Is it just the narrative for proofreading and copy editing or does it include the financials too?

The client I’ve never had before did not have answers to any of these questions. Multi-tasker that I am, I browsed previous annual reports on their website and would it surprise you to learn that I was not impressed with what I saw or with what I read? Copy editing can be interesting. This job? Unlikely.

Because I said I would do it, (have to keep my word) client — who might have been all of 12 years old — said that the organization is planning to get a professional to write the annual report next year because they find it choppy and hard to read and are never really happy with the final product.

Given that an annual report is an important tool for some organizations for messaging and fundraising and for creating an impact and for education and for research and recruiting, and oh, just everyday corporate communication, you’d think that those in decision-making positions would realize this and have reports that are not only well written, but are works of art that will live on forever, that tell the story, even if it’s a double spread with financials. But no. It’s not like that at all.

I rue the day some smart-ass decided to turn annual reports into PR tools, which are now almost universally awful, self-serving pages of propaganda, and a waste of money for most organizations that produce them. If they are not going to be well written, if they are not going to say something useful to customers, (current and potential customers), employees, and then shareholders (in that exact order) then don’t waste time and money on producing them.

Writing an annual report is not a science. The annual report is all about the financials, supported by some interesting story about the company. The narrative does not need to be long. Two pages. Four pages. Six tops. Identify the story and tell it well. The story is not about the board of directors or the chairperson or the CEO or the president. If it is, that’s a company in trouble.

  • Gather the notes for the story through the whole year. Do not wait til the final six weeks.
  • Get a professional to write it.
  • Get a professional to copyedit and proofread it. The writer should not be the proofreader.
  • Get a professional graphic designer.
  • If your budget is limited, get students and pay them. Students are good. And innovative.
  • Publish it digitally; print it on demand.

But seriously, annual reports are dead; long live annual reports! Iconic, corporate artifact.

You do know that corporate communications is dead too, don’t you? Swallowed by the on-message masters and mistresses, many of them former journalists or wannabees. It’s actually rather sad. Some of them are very good writers.

<Long Pause> I said I would do it. Proofread and copyedit the annual report. I said yes because the organization is a good one and I am already doing volunteer work with it and I like the people, and yes, I am going against my value of not giving it away for free.

However, I have to keep my word. Besides, all publications need to be proofread for grammar and punctuation so that readers won’t trip over a misplaced apostrophe or comma or space or wrong word; even readers of annual reports. And maybe, just maybe, something will sink in that will help make their next annual report better.


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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