As Canada’s most connected event and association management company, we are pleased to publish guest blogs by our partners. This post is written by Stu Slayen, an independent communications consultant specializing in publication planning, writing, and business communications.

A former colleague, noticing that I had started to work on my first annual report for our organization, made a passing comment to the effect of: “Sorry you have to work so hard on the annual report. No one’s going to read it.”

The comment didn’t exactly motivate me, but it did prompt me – then as an employee and now as an independent consultant – to think about how an annual report can truly become a meaningful, readable product that connects an organization to its audience. How can your report build rapport?

Here are a few ideas to consider as you get ready to tackle your annual publication obligation.

1. Let your readers see themselves in the report

Your annual report is not a strategic planning paper. It’s not a governance document. It’s not a 48-page mission statement. It’s a tool for your readers to learn or re-learn how they connect with your association. Think of it as an annual storytelling medium to inform and inspire your members, your suppliers, your sponsors, your partners, and other stakeholders.

I once worked with a dynamic team at a personal care home as we re-imagined their annual report. The document was enriched dramatically by inviting people representing different constituencies to write articles. The articles weren’t journalistic pieces about stakeholders. They were first-person stories by stakeholders – a volunteer at the home, a nurse, and (most touching) the 85-year-old wife of an ailing resident.

To gather the pieces, we asked these contributors to make comprehensive notes or take a shot at writing the piece themselves. My role was to edit the content for length and style, communicating with the writers to ensure that the final versions reflected their voice, their intention, and their spirit. The feedback to the report was stellar.

Consider inviting your members, their staff, their clients or patients, your volunteers, and maybe even your suppliers and sponsors to tell their stories about your association. Get the text professionally edited (ghostwritten, if need be), get proper approvals, and run photos of your writers.

The voices and faces of stakeholders will warm up your report, extend its reach, extend its shelf life, and inspire audiences.

2. Coordinate, don’t own

If your association has communications professionals, these are the people who likely lead the development of your report. To use a football metaphor, a successful report is more likely to emerge when the staffer in charge acts more like a quarterback and less like a team owner. (And if you’re a good quarterback, I know a professional team in my home town that could use your services after your annual report goes to press!)

Annual reports are truly community properties. The programs and activities featured in the report exist only because of the hard work done by your association’s professional leadership and volunteers. Collectively, those programs and activities form the soul of the organization. Let the champions of the work be the ones to describe the work; invite colleagues from throughout the association to write articles, share opinions, and submit photos.

Ask your graphic designer to offer two or three different versions of the report cover that people can view and maybe even vote on. Share your editorial plan with your colleagues and invite them to comment. Maybe even consider striking an editorial committee. Solicit ideas for articles and features. If you outsource coordination of the report, let your consultant engage directly with your staff and volunteers.

All of this requires a little bit of letting go, but your readers might thank you by spending more time with your report!

3. Use words to explain numbers

If you’re like me, you’d rather stare at a number of tables than at a table of numbers.

One of my not-for-profit clients wisely invites their Chief Financial Officer to write a first-person commentary to shed light on the financial statements. In his piece, he describes the organization’s financial position, points to highlights of the previous year, and considers opportunities and challenges for the upcoming year. It’s very smart.

If you use charts and graphics to explain your data further, make sure that the visuals clarify, not complicate. Use small pieces of crisp text to explain what the visuals are trying to highlight. For example: “The pie chart to the left shows that increases in administrative expenses were offset by increased registration at the annual conference.”

4. Use the words your readers use

Your annual report is not the time to show off your new thesaurus (for which, ironically, there is no other word). Keeping the language plain and simple will keep people in the report longer and probably leave them with a better understanding of your association.

If you let stakeholders hold the pen for some of the content as suggested above, the plain language challenge will be easier to meet. Your technical content, however, could still raise some red flags. Encourage your writers to use metaphor, stories, and conversational language – even if much of your audience understands the jargon of the field.

After your first drafts are edited, share them with people outside of your organization. Does the content make sense to your graphic designer? Your printer? Your sister? Your psychic? If the final content is (a) technically sound to the satisfaction of the experts within your association; and (b) reasonably easy to understand by non-experts outside of your association, then you have accomplished something grand, memorable, and profile-boosting.

Good luck in your annual report planning. If it’s getting you down, remember that it only happens once a year!

Stu Slayen is an independent communications consultant based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His clients include associations, non-profit organizations, businesses, and international bodies, including the World Bank and United Nations University. He is also a sessional instructor in business communications at the University of Manitoba. See