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How to Write a Compelling Annual Report: Post Webinar Q&A

Q: How long is too long for an annual report?

A: It depends on both your audience and your content. If you’re providing information of interest to your audience in ways they can understand and appreciate, people will generally keep reading.

Having said that, there is a limit: even one of the better reports I reviewed was so long—more than 60 pages—that I got tired of reading it. Here are some ways you can avoid reader burnout:

  • Vary the ways you present the information – For example, don’t go overboard on the narrative; provide relevant pictures that illustrate the points you’re making and insert clearly labeled and uncluttered graphs and charts as appropriate. If you feel you absolutely must provide details most people don’t care about, put them in an appendix so you don’t break up the report’s flow.
  • Ensure the report is easy on the eyes – For example, provide enough white space that people don’t feel like they’re reading War and Peace, and use font sizes that can be seen easily. Providing color on at least some pages breaks up the black and white text.
  • Write in a conversational tone, and use stories and case studies – If people feel they’re part of a conversation rather the target of a report, they’re likely to read a longer document. Toward the end of the webinar, I showed an example of a section on mutual aid that began with a question that piqued a reader’s attention, then went on to answer the question in a conversational voice. Similarly, people are captivated by good stories, so to the extent you tell some that resonate with your audience, you’ll keep them turning the pages.
  • Make sure the reading level isn’t too advanced – This is not to say that you must dumb down your writing, but you want to make it easy for people to understand your message. If they don’t have to think too hard, readers are likely to keep going.

The reports I’ve seen range from two pages (one of the best!) to over 60 pages. Make sure every piece of information in the report passes the “So what?” test. Once you’ve said what needs to be said, stop writing. If you follow those two guidelines, you’re likely to have a good report.

Q: Should you get permission from people before publishing their comments? Do we need to ask permission to use customer testimonials? (two similar questions)

A: If you’re quoting them without using their names (as is the case with Seaside Fire Department’s community board), it’s not necessary. However, if you’re including their names (as in the Bloomfield Township Fire Department’s case), I would say yes. Although most people who take the time to write positive comments are likely to be delighted to find their comments in the fire department’s annual report, it’s best to give them a heads up, ask their permission and tell them how you plan to use the information.

Here’s one way you can make it easy administratively to keep track of the permissions. Assume that a resident verbally provides positive feedback (hopefully results-oriented!) or indicates he/she will provide a written statement. Ask him/her for permission to use that comment with his/her name in the annual report or on your website. If the answer is yes, follow up with a quick email that:

  • describes briefly the interaction
  • contains the quote you would like to use
  • includes the person’s name
  • states that you plan to publish the information as written in your annual report, website or other marketing materials

Ask for a confirmation by return e-mail. Then drop the response into a Testimonials file for future use. Here’s an example of what the email might look like:

Dear Mr./Ms. Smith (use the first name only if you know the person),

I appreciate the very kind words you shared with me at the pancake breakfast yesterday about our firefighters’ professionalism during the fire in your garage last month. I’ve already passed your feedback along to the crew.

With your permission, I would like to use your comment and your name as an example of the level of service we provide to our community, in our annual report or on our department website. This is what the quote would say: “[insert exactly what you would say here.]”

Please feel free to tweak the quote as you see fit and return it to me. If you believe the quote is accurate as written and will allow us to use it, please let me know by return email.

Thank you for supporting your fire department!

Q: I would like to add a more in-depth report to the fire department board that will help with the growth of the department. Would this be put into a more concise separate addendum?

A: Without knowing the type of information you have in mind, here’s my suggestion: if you believe the intended information is of great interest to the community as well as to the board, include it in the annual report.

Having said that, my guess is that your board members would want/need more detailed information than would interest your other stakeholders. If that’s the case, you could provide the information in a more-general way in the annual report so everyone is in the loop, then include more-detailed information either in an appendix to the report or in a separate document.

It seems to me that if the information can help with the growth of the department, you would want all your stakeholders to be aware of the possibilities. However, if the information is likely to be of interest only to the board, I would address it in a separate document that’s not tied to the annual report.

Q: If you’re writing your report geared toward your community, do you have a suggested grade level we should aim for?

A: While I don’t have a specific grade level in mind, my suggestion is that you imagine you’re having a conversation with some people who are representative of your audience, and write just the way you would speak with them. While you don’t want to dumb down your language, neither do you want to produce a report that people can’t decipher.

If you’re not certain whether you’ve hit that balance, have a few people read the report and provide some feedback.

Q: What are your thoughts between a printed report vs. an electronic one from a reader’s perspective?

A: I’m not certain what you mean, so let me answer the question in two ways. If your question is whether people would prefer one format vs. the other, I think there will be a demand for both. People who don’t use computers, don’t like to read on a computer or prefer to have a document in hand will choose a printed version. Those who use computers regularly or who like the easy access of an online version are likely to opt for an electronic format. Knowing your audiences and their preferences would be very helpful if you had to choose one format or the other.

If your question is about the pros and cons of each format, I think the electronic version is much more versatile. Certainly it allows you to reach a wide audience with no cost beyond the initial set up and posting. You also can insert links to other appropriate resources, which makes it convenient for people who want or need those materials. You also can address the preferences of those who like a printed copy by allowing people to download the report in PDF. So it seems an electronic format is more versatile. However, if the most of your stakeholders are not computer savvy or are reluctant to read online, that versatility doesn’t come into play.

Q: If you have data you think important, should you convert it to charts?

A: I’m a big fan of putting as much data as possible into charts if they are displayed in ways that readers can interpret their meaning easily. By that I mean the charts are uncluttered, clearly labeled (with title and key to explain the elements if necessary) and created with readable font sizes and types.

However, the same rule for narrative formats applies to information in charts: be sure the data answer the “So what?” question from your readers’ perspectives.

The reason I favor simple charts is that, like pictures, they can tell a story more efficiently and effectively than words. This frees up space in your report that you can use to provide a brief explanation or analysis (for example, if there are spikes in the data, mention what caused them), create white space that makes the report easier to read or shorten your report.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is president of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc. She recently presented the IAFC webinar, How to Write a Compelling Annual Report

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