Annual report structures tend to be quite similar. There is probably a good reason for that: stakeholders, board members and so on like things 'just so' and CFOs do like their accounts to be set in a straightforward, workman-like manner.
All of that is fine. You can still mix it up a bit without upsetting the apple cart. The same suggestions apply to impact reports and strategy reports. But for now I'll stick with a reasonably heavyweight report, the sort of thing you see in the finance industry or 'group' reports.
Setting aside the covers and contents page, the first thing you will see is the Chairman's statement. Sometimes it comes before the contents page. This is then often followed by the CEO's statement, both featuring some rather uncomfortable portraits. You can liven these up with a pull-out quote or two and even a top-level figure.
What can be a nice addition to the early sections of the report is a double-page spread that is a synopsis of the year's achievements and milestones. If you really want to push the boat out, this can be an infographic to bring the data alive.
The next main sections tend to cover these sorts of subjects, depending on the organisation's activities, for instance:
Activities per region
Activities by service
The goals for the future
There can be some resistance in detailing the future goals of the organisation as the management can be held to task for them the following year.
The above sections are often lumped together, but they don't need to be. Here are a few suggestions:
How about putting the case studies that relate to a service or activity into the activities section to break up the narrative? You can design the case studies to look different from the rest of the content.
Include top-level figures in sidebars or within the content.
Pull-out quotes are always good, but consider gathering quotes from clients or people who have been affected by the organisation. No matter the business type, the human story is the most compelling.
We designed an annual report to act as a 'static website'. Bear with me. We added 'links' in the content and in sidebars that cross-referenced activities and financial data in the report. For instance, if you are reading about a particularly successful programme of English language learning in Russia as a case study, you could point the reader to the English language learning programme page on the website and to the page in the report that lists the financial records showing income from language learning. It's almost interactive. Of course, it could be truly interactive, but that's another article.
Show cause and effect. Cause may not be the right word, but if your mining programme in Africa meant that the organisation was able to fund a school – or whatever – tell that story. Every organisation impacts on people's lives, even if it is 'just' the staff.
Caption your images, especially if there is a story behind them.
And so to finance. Accounts must be set exactly and accurately. What can really help them 'sit up' off the page is to use a very light tint as a background to the page so that the panels the tables sit in are in white. This really 'lifts' the figures and aids legibility. You'd be surprised how elegant a set of numbers can look. Whatever you do, get a sample page signed off as a template before laying out all the accounts as it takes yonks to do.
This insanely-detailed government guide (2018–19) for best practice in financial reporting, for those who need to know, can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/y7umpkla
We help organisations with the structure of their reports to maximise their impact – and we can do that for you, too.
We work for a global group (best not to say who, but you'll have a fair few of their products in your house, for sure) which 'owns' a number of internationally-recognised brands. When we were briefed, we established that the report only included detailed financial reporting. We recognised that there was an opportunity to do more – to make the annual report work harder. Below is an extract from our recommendations (a lot of which is repeated above, but then we are practising what we preach).
Mission and vision statements
These typically appear on the inside front cover or page one and can give a brief overview. We suggest setting them in a clear, ‘bold’ way with no accompanying images.
A year’s overview, synopsis or executive summary
Dedicate a double-page spread as a synopsis of the entire report. The content should illustrate the main points, highlights and important points that are often buried in the narrative. It should give the reader an ‘at a glance’ overview. Subjects that might be included are:
Top level figures
Mergers and acquisitions
Key staff changes
New product lines
There are a number of ways of illustrating these: we recommend a mixture of infographics and text.
Global brand map
If you have multiple brands or sub-brands, a diagram or organigram can be used to help readers understand the brand hierarchy and the locations these brands operate in.
Combining logos, maps, regions and top-level facts and figures will make this an informative spread. Office and plant locations can be added to add depth – or even act as a directory.
Product or service overview
While you may understand the scope of your products and services, your readership may not. Illustrating the scope, reach and purpose of your products and services can give the readership a better understanding of your company's activities and help reinforce your mission and vision values.
The use of logos, product photography, text and links is recommended.
Case studies are a great way of humanising content and illustrating what impact your products and services have on people’s lives. It is important to use real-life case studies with actual photographic content where possible.
Company or brand history
If your organisation or the brands it ‘manages’ has a long history, or if you have various activities over the past year that you would like to highlight, then a timeline is a great way of illustrating this.
Depending on the level of content you may have access to, this could cover a page, double-page spread or run along the bottom of a number of pages with accompanying logos, images and very short text. It could end with a hint to the future.
Vision for the future
Defining a vision for the future can be difficult, but if treated at the top-level it affords the opportunity to communicate to the stakeholders what your aims are.
It is wise to steer clear of setting specific goals as this may inspire a framework for future reporting and subsequent judgement unless your organisation has these goals set by a governing body.
The content should be treated an aspirational.