How to create an award-winning annual report

The best compliance reports demonstrate accountability and create a compelling narrative for readers. Don’t be afraid to showcase your organisation’s personality and creativity.
Smiling business man and business woman reviewing a report on a laptop screen in a sustainable office environment.
Annual Report

Writing, designing and delivering annual and sustainability reports isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it can come with significant rewards. A job well done will not only earn you kudos from your bosses and the board, but it could also earn you and your organisation a national or international award. Creating an award-winning annual report will show that your organisation is committed to meeting its reporting obligations and serving stakeholders. It will also reflect well on your organisation’s brand.

While criteria vary, awards programs generally aim to recognise excellence in reporting, to improve the overall standard of financial reporting. They also allow organisations to benchmark their reports against best practice and other entrants’ annual reports. Even if you don’t win, comparing your annual report to others – particularly previous award winners – can help you work out how to do better next year.

In the Asia-Pacific region, relevant awards programs include the Australasian Reporting Awards, the Asia Sustainability Reporting Awards and the Hong Kong Management Association’s Best Annual Reports Awards. US-based programs include the League of American Communications Professionals’ Vision Awards and the international ARC Awards, which attract entries from more than 80 countries. Some broader business awards programs, such as the Asia-Pacific Stevie Awards and the International Association of Business Communicators’ Gold Quill Awards, also include categories for annual reports.

What makes an award-winning annual report?

The best annual reports demonstrate accountability and create a compelling narrative for readers. Reports should be concise, uncluttered and demonstrate transparency, with material organised logically. Include images, graphs and tables that enhance the written content. Don’t be afraid to showcase your organisation’s personality and creativity. The aim is to elicit an emotional response from the reader rather than just present the facts.

Overview, highlights and objectives

Judges are looking for an overview of your organisation’s history, purpose, vision and values, and objectives early in the report. Include a letter from your chief executive or management team, then summarise the year’s events, highlights and results. This should include information about the progress you made towards achieving your objectives. This section should also include information about key financial and non-financial performance measures and provide commentary about how they were achieved. Include a discussion of shareholder value, if applicable.

Review of operations

Provide details of your organisation’s operations, as well as details of its operating environment and key business risks. Topics in this section may include:

  • strategic management programs and performance outcomes achieved
  • the impact of government policies
  • research and development or technology-related issues
  • corporate social responsibility activities
  • environmental performance
  • governance issues.

Provide key information about internal divisions, markets or locations; and major brands, products and services. Include costs, performance, and objectives for the year ahead.

Judges will be looking for a detailed statement of your governance policy and practices and information about the board, senior executives and organisational structure. Include details of remuneration and benefits received.

Issues relating to employees (such as training and development, working arrangements and workplace diversity measures) and workplace health and safety should also be addressed here.

Financial performance

You’ll have provided some commentary on your organisation’s financial position earlier in the report, but judges will also be looking for formal Financial Statements that comply with national legislative requirements and applicable reporting and accounting standards.

In addition to the content, judges will assess how your annual report is presented, including clarity and conciseness, design and the inclusion of tools that make it easier to read. These include a table of contents, an index and a glossary of terms.

Criteria vary between awards programs, so make sure you check them carefully. Specific industries or special awards categories such as ‘work, health and safety reporting’ or ‘sustainability reporting’ may also have additional criteria.

Ready to get started?

To help you tackle the job ahead, we’ve used the criteria of the awards programs above and others to develop the following six steps to improve your production process and create an award-winning annual report.

1. Start planning early

Before you start, create a timeline for your report, working backwards from the final deadline and leaving plenty of time to meet key milestones. Establish clear deadlines for contributors, leaving enough time for approvals and for contributors to make revisions.

2. Establish a clear, logical structure

Map out the report’s content in a spreadsheet, starting with the sections you need to include to meet compliance obligations and then adding in additional content that fleshes out your story, such as case studies. Add columns for information such as word counts or page lengths, contributors’ details, deadlines and status updates. This will help ensure you meet compliance obligations and keep track of the progress of individual sections.

3. Provide context for facts

Most awards programs want you to go beyond simply describing what happened in the prior year and to explain why it happened – to give readers genuine and thoughtful analysis from the people running the business or organisation.

So, describe your organisation’s activities or operations in the context of its policies, strategies and operating environment. Include financial and non-financial highlights and an analysis of how corporate programs and management initiatives affected your organisation’s performance and operating environment. Compare key statistics from the past five years, where possible, to show how your organisation has evolved. Ensure the performance information you provide correlates with data in the financial statements.

4. Make it easy to understand

Most awards programs place a premium on plain English and clear communication. Use simple language and try to avoid jargon and overly long sentences. Infographics, tables and timelines of events are great for summarising important data and showing trends – be it in customer numbers, types of transactions or other activities. Provide commentary for financial reports to make the data easier to understand.

5. Include navigation tools

A table of contents and an index makes it easier for readers and awards judges to find specific information. Where possible, include links to other sections or additional resources in online reports. Consider including a compliance index to show which sections of the report fulfil reporting requirements set out in legislation.

6. Enlist a fresh pair of eyes (or several)

Have the copy edited and proofread before the annual report is designed, preferably by someone who hasn’t read the copy before. Check for consistency of style throughout the report, looking at things like heading styles and capitalisation, use of abbreviations and tone of voice.

Once the report has been designed, check for typos, missing captions and inconsistencies in page numbering, headings and font styles. Check all links in the digital version work properly. Then proofread, proofread, proofread!

Even if you decide against entering your annual report for an award, following these tips will help ensure you deliver a finished product that is both high-quality and a great read. If your eye is on the prize, however, then good luck!

Editor Group has worked on many annual reports that have won prizes at the Australasian Reporting Awards. These include The Smith Family Impact Report 2022–23 and Australian Broadcasting Corporation Annual Report 2022.

If you’d like to talk to us about writing or editing your next annual report, you can contact us here.


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