Three Techniques for Writing a Compelling Annual Report

An annual report provides a powerful, effective and efficient way to connect with your community. It enables you to demonstrate your value, educate your stakeholders and win community support.

However, there’s an important caveat: if the report causes readers’ eyes to glaze over, you’re better off scrapping the project.

No matter what your agency’s size or type, you can write an annual report that captures your community’s attention. Some of the most effective reports I’ve seen have been 2-4 pages, proving they need not be long.

Here are three techniques for writing a compelling annual report.

Approach the project with a positive mindset that focuses on value.

Do you dread having to write the annual report? Instead of thinking of it as a burden, focus on the benefits you gain. By focusing on the value you provide, you create a win-win situation: the report demonstrates clearly your agency’s contribution to the community’s safety, health and economic viability, and it simultaneously fosters a sense of pride in your stakeholders when they discover all you do for them.

Tip: If you or your staff doesn’t have the time, skills or inclination to write the report, assign it to someone—inside or outside your agency—who does.

Paint the community into the public-safety picture by telling their story—and allowing them to tell yours.

An annual report that tells a story in which the community is the star is one that will capture your audience’s attention and encourage them to become advocates for public safety. Instead of citing statistics, such as the number of training hours or inspections or fire prevention programs, tell your readers how the community has become safer, healthier and more economically viable because of those activities.

Lakeville (Minn.) Fire Rescue’s 2013 Annual Report (PDF) is the best example I’ve seen of making the community the star of the public-safety story.

Tip: Use relevant stories, mini-cases, photographs and analogies to make your points. Write in a conversational tone, as if you’re talking with a community member sitting across from you.

Allowing stakeholders to tell your story from their perspectives makes for compelling reading. Who knows better the value your agency provides than those who have experienced it firsthand? Testimonials are a very powerful and credible way to demonstrate your value.

Bloomfield Township (Mich.) Fire Department’s 2013 Annual Report (PDF) allows stakeholders to tell its story by including testimonials effectively throughout the report, beginning on the cover.

Lead with results that are connected to your public-safety big picture.

First, identify clearly the big picture of public safety: a safe, healthy, economically viable community.

Second, focus relentlessly on that outcome by connecting the dots between it and everything you do.

Third, lead with that outcome; make it the subject of your sentences, following with tasks, activities or methodology only if necessary and if they’re of interest to your audience.

Remember: people don’t care how you keep them safe; they only care that they are safe.

Lake Havasu City (Ariz.) Fire Department’s 2013 Annual Report (PDF) illustrates two points. The fire chief’s letter is results-focused, and a bar graph highlights the value of property saved from fire while providing a context for better understanding.

Tip: To identify what’s of interest to your readers, for each item in your report, ask and answer this question from their perspectives: “So what?” If there’s a compelling answer, leave the information in the report; if there isn’t, omit it.

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