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How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 2: persuasive writing

If you know your last annual report* didn’t do you justice, and you want your next to really pack a punch, there are a few simple steps you can take.  This is part two of a three-part blog. It looks at the process, the content, and support for writing your report.

The previous blog – How to write an annual report that has impact – Part 1:  step-by-step guide looked at the process, and the framework you might use for the content. The next blog looks at key messages. In this blog I’ll look a bit more deeply at how to write persuasively to win hearts and minds.

Dealing with a wide audience and a dual purpose

The starting point for any piece of persuasive writing is to understand your audience and their needs, and know your purpose. The more you can really step inside your audience’s shoes, the stronger and more appealing your communication will be. The problem is, annual reports have a very wide audience and usually a dual purpose.

The audience can be all of your stakeholders, from beneficiaries to funders. The core purpose is to show accountability – what difference have you made and how have you used your resources? – and beyond that, to also act as a marketing/advocacy tool.

So in order to manage this, it’s a good idea to start by asking yourself:

  • Who are the priority audiences? Put them in order of importance and focus on the top one to three
  • What do we know about their needs, interests, expectations in relation to our organisation and this report?
  • Are there any misconceptions that we need to address through this publication?

Think about your key messages

Key messages are simply a way for you to distil what you want to say in manageable, memorable phrases – the key things you want people to remember. They’re a useful tool for any organisation because it means they’re also easy for your team to remember, whenever they’re asked to talk about the organisation.

Ideally these will also take into account what your audiences want to think, feel, know (see next section), and their particular interests.

Key messages are a whole topic in themselves so for now here are a few questions that may help:

  • Is there an overriding message you want people to take away about what you’ve achieved and the difference you’ve made in this particular year?
  • Is there a particular audience/set of stakeholders you need to convince this year – what message/s do they most need/want to hear?
  • Are there any specific achievements you want to highlight, or any misperceptions about your organisation that you want to address?
  • Can you summarise the difference you’ve made this year in one sentence?

Key messages should be short, clear and easy to remember. When writing them, always try to answer your reader’s question: ‘so what?’ ie why does that matter, why is it important, how does it change things?

Use the three modes of persuasion – think, feel, know

Before you start, and throughout the writing process, think about what sort of words/attitudes you’d like associated with your organisation. What would you like your readers to think/feel about you? This’ll help you to get the right tone of voice.

The world’s top persuasive communicators – from Greek philosopher Aristotle, to modern day speech writers for politicians – know that there are three things you have to convey. This is particularly true of speeches but also for any appeal to hearts and minds. These are known as the three modes of persuasion:

  • Character (‘ethos’) – the beliefs/attitudes/values of an organisation that build credibility and trust: what people THINK of you
  • Emotion (‘pathos’) – the appeal to emotion, which could be anything from anger to kindness – what people FEEL about you
  • Logic (‘logos’) – the reasoned argument, backed by evidence – what people KNOW about you

What this means for an annual report

The more you dig into this topic, the more you find there is to know – it’s fascinating – but for your annual report, it’s worth just knowing that it’ll be more effective if you can address these three areas, usually through:

  • Character – you’ll be more credible if you’re clear, honest, and consistent. Avoid too many adjectives (fantastic workshop, wonderful activity, heartwarming programme) and don’t over-claim or exaggerate. Character is built over time but each communication contributes to it, and is helped by tone of voice.
  • Emotion – stories of individuals that are written using classic storytelling techniques are by far the most powerful technique to convey your impact. In brief, try to engage the reader with the character and their plight; show their journey from the situation they were in, the obstacles they overcame to where they are now – and obviously how you helped. Emotion nearly always overrides logic – and there is research to prove it (see here for just one example, a summary of Damasio’s theory).
  • Logic – ideally your annual report will answer the question ‘convince me’ through quotes from beneficiaries and people in positions of authority; statistical evidence. Make sure facts and figures are easy to remember (ideally conveyed visually or compared with something else eg the size of a football pitch), and that there aren’t too many.

Some other things you may want to consider for your annual report

  • Remember that what you did isn’t as important as the difference it made: outcomes are more important than outputs
  • The difference you made is best conveyed through impact evaluation language that suggests a change eg increased, reduced, grew, improved, developed
  • Your impact on an individual is easier to grasp than on large group of people
  • For everything you write, think – can I present it in a way that’s easier to remember and understand? Have I backed that up with enough evidence?

And finally … starting to write

Finally, here are a couple of blogs about the fundamentals of copywriting that are a good starting point for any writing you have to do for your organisation:

3 simple copywriting tips to help you avoid the fear of the blank page

13 quick checks to instantly polish your copywriting 

Is there anything else that’s missing that you’d like to know, or anything you’ve found is useful to consider? Do comment in the box below. The final blog in this series is Part 3: how to brief a copywriter. So if you haven’t already, do sign up to this blog to receive a notification as soon as it’s posted.

* If you work for a charity, it will have to produce a trustees’ annual report and accounts for the Charity Commission. This is a legal obligation, with specific requirements, and is likely to be a more detailed document than the type of report I refer to here. However, some of the writing principles outlined here can also be used when writing your Charity Commission report.

First published: 2018


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