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How to Create an Annual Report People Actually Want to Read

Another year, another report. How to ensure this year’s is a must-read — and inspires action.

MC Annual Report

By Colleen Ringer

Publishing an annual report is a daunting task, to say the least, and one that requires lots of wrangling, writing and numbers (so many numbers!). These projects can take so long that as soon as you’re done with one annual report, it’s time to start on the next. And yet, for all that effort you and your team put in, is anyone even reading what you’ve crafted? These hefty publications often end up in the recycle bin instead of where they belong — on a reader’s coffee table or bookmarked on their computer.

The key to creating an impactful annual report that gets not only read but saved is carefully curated content and thoughtful design. Here’s how to do it.

Define Your Audience to Tell a Story

An annual report is your chance to shout your organization’s success from the rooftops. And that’s true — with a caveat. The report should celebrate your organization’s accomplishments, of course, but the golden rule of communication still reigns supreme: In the best annual reports, the reader takes center stage.

A report created for business leaders and local politicians, for example, should paint your organization as an economic engine and contributor to your city, state and/or region. A report for nonprofit supporters should focus on the impact your organization is making and include personal stories of those who have benefited, while one used as a recruitment tool should prominently feature staff, perks and opportunities for growth. Ultimately, your audience should inform the story you tell as well as how you tell it — through tone, imagery and calls to action.

When we collaborated with the American Society of Landscape Architects on its 2023 annual report, that meant putting award-winning member designs front and center, while also weaving in stories about how the organization and its members are advancing the profession.

Feature Real People

You can say you’ve changed lives, or you can tell the stories of the lives you’ve changed. For healthcare systems writing annual reports, a well-curated collection of patient profiles will elicit a deeper emotional response than simply stats and figures. They’ll also showcase your hospital’s leading staff, research and technology in a subtler way.

In our experience working with Phoenix Children’s and Boston Children’s Hospital Trust, we know that one of the best ways to connect donors with the work an organization is doing is by featuring photography of real — and real adorable — patients. But tourism organizations, academic institutions and even corporations have plenty of people-centered stories to tell, too.

Curate Your Numbers Carefully

Perhaps the whole point of an annual report is to showcase an organization’s success, supported by data. But it’s easy to fall into a numbers trap. By carefully selecting the stats you highlight and presenting them in an interesting way, they will make a greater impact on readers. In the special edition, 10th-anniversary annual report we collaborated on with the Basser Center for BRCA at Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center, the organization uses key figures to communicate the risk that comes with having a BRCA mutation. This helps to underscore the importance of the organization’s work.

Take Chances

Who says annual reports have to be stuffy? In 2021, MailChimp gave its annual report the video game treatment with side-scrolling animation that’s still being talked about in communications circles. (See a snippet of it here.) If that’s too out there for you, check out Girls Who Code’s 2022 annual report that features just the right level of whimsy.

Don’t Skimp on Design

Intriguing illustration, typography and infographics can instantly elevate a bland annual report. Do you have custom imagery? Don’t hesitate to take an editorial approach with full-bleed photo spreads that readers will surely remember, as Fairtrade International did in its 2022 annual report.

If your photography feels too monotonous (i.e., seas of lab coats), try amping up the energy with filters and photo effects. You can use these tricks to elevate amateur shots as well as professional photos.

For The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s 2022 annual report, we were driven by a desire to represent as much of the organization’s people and work as possible on the cover. But we needed to make sure the photos, coming from various sources, could fit together seamlessly. The solution: A photo illustration using the brand’s color palette.

If your plan is to go fully digital, take a look at how Adidas uses video, imagery and animation to give its 2023 annual report a striking, distinctive aesthetic. This is definitely an example of letting design do the heavy lifting while the sparse text packs a punch.

Happy annual reporting!

Is It Time to Rethink Your Annual Report?

We can help you create a compelling and effective annual report, whether it’s print, digital — or both.


Colleen Ringer Overlay Blue
Colleen Ringer Editorial Director

Colleen has worked with clients large and small for more than a decade as a writer, editor and content strategist. She has managed content marketing programs for national and global brands, including hospital systems, universities and nonprofits. Before entering the world of content marketing, Colleen lived in the land of magazine publishing and wrote about architecture, design and travel.

As a mother of a video game-obsessed son, Colleen spends part of her free time learning about Fortnite and the other part trying to recruit her son to root for the Arizona Cardinals. She loves a good book, a strong iced tea and when her Fantasy Football team is winning.

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