8 tips for a powerful, story-driven annual report


For some organisations, the annual report is the largest storytelling assignment of the year. Whoever your audience, and whatever design format you choose (make it visual!), these tips will help your team produce a memorable story.

Start with an online search for design inspiration. Type ‘annual report inspiration’ into Google for articles with aggregated lists of the best reports on the internet, in many formats. Save the designs that fit your story best, and share with other people on the production team. Pinterest, the image-sharing network, is also loaded with inspiration.

Write a creative/design brief. Briefs vary, but here is the basic info that will help to align everyone's vision and expectations: goals of your report, overarching story (consider a theme), main messages, budget, timeline, parameters like page count or video length, success metrics, how you plan to launch, and links to online inspiration. Share your brief with all production contributors, including writers, designers printers, photographers, illustrations, animators, and video folks. A good brief saves headaches.

Formats: go beyond print and PDFs. We love paper. It’s tangible. Different papers communicate different moods. And some audiences demand it. But do think of how other formats in different combinations might find new audiences, or help you communicate messages that are challenging with written words, or reduce production costs, or leave a better legacy. Media consumption increasingly trends towards mobile phones, social media, and video, so consider how those formats can help you tell your story.

  • Website/microsite with its own URL
  • Animated film or video story. Great entertainment and storytelling value
  • Video address by your staff/leadership
  • Poster infographics/data visualisations. For quick impact

Stick to a digestible handful of messages. Focus on the major themes of the year. You don’t need to tell your audience everything. Too much noise hides or complicates the real story. Resist the temptation to highlight all teams or units in your organisation.

Two-page timeline spread from our design of the 2016 annual report for the UK-based Centre for Development Results. 

Two-page timeline spread from our design of the 2016 annual report for the UK-based Centre for Development Results. 

Size matters. Tailor your word count, page count, or video or animation length to what audiences want. Keep your story concise, as excessive content will increase costs through the production chain.

Plot a story in manageable sections. Bring a combination of the following into your story: Financials and other accounting and transparency-related data. CEO welcome letter. Case studies. Human interest stories. Quotes and testimonials. Thanks to donors. Data visualisations and infographics. Reflection on state of the industry. Longer-term business vision. Lessons learned this year. Timeline of major events. Recognition of accomplishments.

Involve all storytellers early. Your contributors may include writers, editors, designers, printers, board members, photographers, filmmakers, and animators. Communicate early and often with them, and jointly create a production calendar that respects everyone’s time. Track time spent on the production so that you can measure costs and then adjust for the following year.

Invest in your launch! With your head down in production, it’s easy to under-invest in launching and thereby negate much of your great work. Within your organisation, communicate early and often about the launch so your colleagues know an annual story is coming, and seek their support in promoting. Consider internal presentations. Distribute copies at your end-of-year event. Simple activities like these can earn internal buy-in that will help your story find its audiences. Whatever formats you choose, create shortlinks to your storytelling products that can be shared easily.

Other points to remember

Start strong. Cover design for UNDP Bangladesh

Start strong. Cover design for UNDP Bangladesh

  • People do judge books by their covers. Make yours great
  • Delete fluff and jargon. Aggressively
  • Your annual report content will likely have been thoroughly reviewed and is probably in great shape, so re-purpose it for other business development materials
  • Finish strong, and offer a call to action while you have your audiences' attention
  • Good work done now will make next year’s production faster and even better


Big Blue Communications helps teams worldwide tell their stories. Want help with your annual report?