March 2017

Monthly Archives

  • Annual Reports — Keep the Content Readable

    Annual reports come in many shapes and sizes, from formal reports with dozens of pages to friendly updates designed with brochure-like brevity. Of course, it’s best if you communicate more than once a year, but by publishing an annual report, you can be sure to share the highlights of your accomplishments with stakeholders and potential clients at least once a year.

    What should an annual report include? Generally, it’s best to remind folks of your mission and vision, and the goals you set out to accomplish; then demonstrate how you stayed true to those ideals and goals. If you experienced surprises, either good or bad, it might be worth mentioning how they affected your decision-making and outcomes. In essence, the annual report should make people feel like they can depend on your organization to achieve what it sets out to achieve

    While your report may need to include less-than-riveting details for legal or regulatory reasons, I highly recommend starting with a succinct executive summary. This will serve as a road map and provide an overview, setting expectations and allowing people to get the gist of your report without reading every detail.

    If you want anyone to read past the executive summary, use a visually appealing layout with plenty of whitespace (the space around text and graphic elements). This will draw people in and make the report easy to read. It is far better to have ten pages of uncrowded text that doesn’t require reading glasses than it is to stay within some self-imposed page limit. If you have a strict page limit, then you have a strict text limit, too. Use headers to signal main points, and keep the content to a handful of well-considered messages. If you’re trying to make complex data easy to understand, consider using infographics.

    Regardless of the type of content you’re sharing, providing appropriate background material allows your readers to understand your report and put it in context. Avoid acronyms, industry-specific nomenclature and references that your audience might not understand. It canbe difficult for those immersed in their work to recognize jargon that would confuse the public. Consider having an outside editor review your report before publishing. Better yet, hire a professional writer who knows how to convey ideas in a clear, compelling way right from the start.

    Regardless of the type of content you’re sharing, providing appropriate background material allows your readers to understand your report and put it in context.

    When I write this type of content for my clients, I often ask whether they can think of a memorable story to illustrate each main message. Stories are often far more effective than providing a play by play of how you adhered to a plan and stayed within budget.

    Think about what you might find interesting in someone else’s annual report–write your report that way. If at all possible, highlight the stories of individuals who benefit from your work, rather than simply describing the work. If that’s not practical, tell the story of your work through the employees who made it happen. In the end, people care about people.

  • Exaggeration Weakens Your Argument, Unless You Exaggerate With Gusto

    When we feel strongly about something or we’re deeply invested in getting someone’s attention, many of us fall into the exaggeration trap: we overstate our case. We use absolutes like “always” or “never.” We reach for superlatives like “best” or “worst.”

    When we do this, we weaken our argument. For discerning listeners, these melodramatic words are like neon signs that say, “I’m using imprecise language, so think twice before believing this information.”

    Note the difference between these two statements:

    1. Everyone thinks this toothpaste is the best ever. Thanks to this product, I never get cavities and my teeth are the whitest ever.
    2. In a survey of 500 dentists, 495 chose this toothpaste because of it ability to reduce cavities and whiten teeth.

    See what I mean? Sentence #2 wins. Specific language that speaks directly to the benefits of your product or service is far more effective than over-the-top claims. It might be that your toothpaste really is the best ever, but that argument is hard to verify. I find that advertisements, blogs, and op-eds that use credible language and appeal to my sense of reason as well as my emotions tend to sway my opinions.

    The age of the Internet has supported the promulgation of hyperbole, as people have less and less time to grab the attention of prospective customers. I understand the temptation to say, “OMG! This is the best ever!” But it probably won’t work as you hope.

    Now, I’m not saying there’s no place for hyperbole. It’s ineffective when you’re trying to make a serious argument and you overdo it, but if you’re using it for the delightfully crazy or funny effect it can have, it can be brilliant. Ben Huberman wrote a GREAT piece on having fun with hyperbole in 2014. Colorful, well-designed exaggerations can grab attention and illustrate points beautifully. As Huberman writes, you can also mix and match understatement with hyperbole to great effect, like JFK did when addressing a room full of Nobel laureates at the White House. He said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

    If you exaggerate, go big! Go for effect. Otherwise, craft a compelling argument without absolutes or superlatives.