While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak disruption on many industries and businesses, Australian companies are still required to produce an annual report summarising key achievements, financial information, and strategy.

This year, the document will be more important than ever. Investors are nervous and uncertain at a time when boards are going to find it difficult to make confident statements, in an environment where what’s said is likely to be scrutinised to an unprecedented degree. This year’s annual report will therefore be a critical vehicle for providing reassurance and strengthening confidence in the company’s prospects.

This means that the nature, structure, and content of your annual report needs a fundamental rethink. What you’ve said and done in the past won’t necessarily give your audience the information and reassurance they’re seeking, in ways that make it easy for them to understand what you want to say.

Your annual report also needs to take account of changes in the way we’re increasingly consuming information. These changes include the likelihood that your annual report will be read primarily as a digital document online, the widespread use of mobile phones and tablet devices for getting access to information, and our shorter attention spans.

Your priority needs to be ensuring that the written and visual content of your annual report work together effectively to produce a coherent, dynamic and visually engaging package. Following are five ways you can achieve this.

Be relevant
What is an annual report? It’s a direct communication from a company’s board and management. You can make your annual report attractive to investors by providing a holistic and meaningful picture of your company’s business model, strategy, development, performance, position and future prospects. Your messages provide context for the financial statements and future announcements.

The challenge in the COVID-19 world is to estimate and report the impact of the pandemic on operations, earnings, and the outlook. Investors will mark down companies perceived to lack transparency and responsiveness in this environment and which do not take full advantage of communication channels such as their annual report to inform and reassure the market. So it’s more important than ever to ensure that you maximise the effectiveness of your report’s content and presentation.

Create a clear structure
While investors like continuity and last year’s template can be a good starting point, the structure of an annual report should meet investors’ current needs. You may need to reconsider this in a business environment which has changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ensure that the structure and content address any issues which have arisen as a result. Ensuring your report has a coherent narrative flow, sets out information clearly, and has a cohesive structure is more important than ticking off a checklist of compliance requirements.

Write dynamic copy
Einstein is credited with saying “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. This is a good guide for writing your annual report. If investors understand what you say, they will have more incentive to delve further and hold on to their shareholding, buy more shares or recommend investment to others.

Aim for quality, not quantity
Investors allocate funds based on what they know and what they have confidence in. If you’re not telling your story succinctly, there’s a good chance they will place your company in the ‘too hard basket’. Increasing readability by using descriptive headings and break-out boxes helps to cut the clutter. Relevant examples, photos, diagramsand tables assist too.

Tell your story through effective design
An effective design, adaptable to digital format, can help express how your company creates and captures value and why it’s unique. Good annual report design will guide investors’ perceptions, empowering your brand through ‘high level’ information that conveys the significance of your company’s strategy, operations and products.

How FCR can help
We have 35 years’ experience helping companies present the information that matters most to them in compelling and effective ways in over 500 annual and interim reports.

We combine expertise in big-picture storytelling with in-depth understanding of how investors read reports and a passion for visually engaging design. We help companies turn their report into a powerful tool generating awareness of their achievements, strengths, and potential, and ensure their messages are heard, rather than just being a record of the past year’s financials. We provide creative annual report design, layout, typesetting, photography, proofreading, production distribution and editorial services, along with advice on the most effective format for your company. Contact us to find out more about how FCR can help you maximise the effectiveness of your annual report.

Phillip Gray (p.gray@fcr.com.au) is an Account Director with Financial & Corporate Relations (FCR).