Stories have always framed our understanding of the world. They are embedded with power. The power to influence. To inspire. To make change imaginable. Which begs the question, if stories are so powerful, why are organisations so bad at telling them?
For some reason, when we join a company, we forget how to tell a story. We find collective safety in pie charts and corporate jargon. We spend much time crafting content but make little effort to get anyone to care for it. Organisations need to rediscover storytelling. To move away from command-and-control communication to crafting stories that engage, motivate and influence behaviour.
The FRC is at pains to “emphasise that the strategic report is a medium of communication”. Its guidance “encourage[s] entities to experiment and be innovative in the drafting of their annual reports, presenting narrative information in a way that enables them to best ‘tell their story’ while remaining within the regulatory framework”. (FRC Guidance on the Strategic Report, 2022).
The regulator bangs on about it. “The strategic report should be written in plain language.” “The structure, presentation and content of the strategic report should be reviewed annually to ensure that it continues to meet its purpose and only contains information that is relevant.” “Comprehensiveness reflects the breadth of information that should be included in the strategic report rather than the depth of information.” “Conciseness is achieved through the efficient communication of material information […] to shareholders.”
“Other stakeholders such as customers, employees and members of society more widely may also wish to use information contained within it. The annual report should address issues relevant to these other users where, because of the influence of those issues on the development, performance, position or future prospects of the entity’s business, they are also material to shareholders.”
“Each component of the annual report should be structured in a way that allows for a clear narrative flow and cohesiveness in the information that it contains.” “Effective communication […] will not usually be achieved through the use of a ‘checklist style’ approach to drafting.” “The components of an annual report should not be drafted independently. It is only through an integrated approach to drafting the annual report that all relevant relationships and interdependencies between items of information disclosed in it will be properly identified and appropriately highlighted through linkages and signposting.” “Where cross-referencing or signposting is used, care should be taken that the nature of the relationship or interdependency is adequately explained, rather than just highlighting its existence.”
You get the drift: tell your story, make it matter, and keep it short.
I recently discussed with a fellow reporting consultant the best approach to the ‘Highlights’, or ‘At-a-glance’, or ‘Overview’ pages typically at the front of an annual report. One side of the argument was: “The highlights are the highlights, they include the size and geographical footprint of the company, an organogram of the business and a list of the usual metrics. It’s the stuff people need to know before you dive into the story”.
The other view was: “The highlights are the story. You must choose wisely what the reader ‘glances at’. The first few pages are the shop window: of the few things you hand-pick for display, should the office locations be the priority? And do the sample metrics supporting the story?” No points for guessing my side of the debate.
There is a writing exercise aimed at demonstrating the intimate connection between content and message. Students are asked to describe the front of the room as though they were (a) writing the opening paragraph of a horror story; (b) writing an article for Better Homes and Gardens; (c) writing an article for Mechanics Illustrated; and (d) writing an article for Rolling Stone. Each account must consider the kinds of things selected for notice, what things were in the foreground and the background, and how they are described and narrated.
Each mode predisposes the apprehender not only to notice different things about the front of the room, but also to evaluate, arrange, and describe those things differently. Which front room description is better, more correct, or more accurate? Which mode is more useful, interesting, or appropriate?
The same principle applies to your report. A lot happens in a year, both in your operating environment and within the firm, and the two are rarely unconnected. What you choose to focus on and how it is received change. This year’s story should not be last year’s, nor should your disclosures. Take, for example, the business strategy. What point should you make about it? Last year, you might have needed to explain what it is. This year you might need to persuade it is resilient. Next year, you might need to demonstrate it is working. This is true of every disclosure and how you stitch them together.
I never took a literary course, but one thing I’ve learned in my 20-year-long career helping companies is that annual reports are like jokes told backwards: you start with the punchline. Stick it on the cover. Make sure that the opening pages support it. Maintain momentum beyond them, act like you mean it. And don’t tell the story two years in a row, you won’t get the same reaction.
… the love you take is equal to the love you make. People describe how they feel about companies in profoundly personal ways. Your report must express your business story in human terms. Make people care, it’s business critical. Your report should help establish a relationship – and successful relationships are based on collaboration, trust, and shared purpose. You want people to feel vested in your company. It’s about the journey you’re on with your stakeholders as co-creators of a vision.
Ultimately, your story should be a call to action. As a repository of your corporate narrative, your annual report is uniquely placed to inspire employees, enthuse shareholders, attract customers and engage influencers such as analysts, rating agencies and the media. By declaring that the opportunity addressed cannot be achieved by you alone, you feel authentic and build trust and equity. The rallying call shows you understand what drives who you are reaching out to. It encourages them to care about the outcome.
Message, theme, and golden thread are too often an afterthought. But they can’t be. To meet the FRC’s expectations, you must identify the communication objectives of your annual report. Unlocking the full value of the communication means engaging your stakeholders on a personal level. It’s your report, make it matter.
If you’d like to discuss this, or any other subject, please get in touch with Richard Costa, Senior Corporate Communications and Reporting Consultant at firstname.lastname@example.org
We’d love to know what you think.