Writing corporate documents your stakeholders want to read
Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Corporate documents, including Annual Reports, Corporate Plans and Price Submissions are essential for businesses and organisations. They play an important role in a company’s planning and analysis of performance, as well as building a connection between an organisation and the community.
We asked some industry professionals for their thoughts on all forms of corporate reporting, to find out how to create a successful document, the role these play in a business, and what their predictions are for the future of corporate reporting and planning.
The essential elements of a successful planning or reporting document
Corporate plans and reports achieve more than just presenting information to stakeholders – they provide an organisation with an opportunity to reflect on achievements, to recognise areas for improvement, to make plans for the future, and to set out aspirational goals to work towards.
‘A really good corporate document is the end product of a broader planning, reporting and evaluation process with customer and stakeholder value at the centre,’ says Heidi Ryan, Manager Government Affairs & Corporate Strategy at Melbourne Water. ‘It is critically important to understand what matters to your customers and community and use this to shape the story you tell your readers with that at the centre.’
Heidi Ryan, Manager Government Affairs
& Corporate Strategy at Melbourne Water
Fiona Garlick, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at State Trustees, understands what makes a successful corporate document, and what methods need to be in place to make sure the process runs smoothly. ‘The most essential parts of planning are not sexy, but
your document won’t succeed without them,’ she notes. These are clear timelines, a set budget, and a strong understanding of requirements.
Corporate documents may not be the most glamorous of publications, but their importance within a range of industries is unquestionable. So how can communications professionals make reports and plans interesting and engaging for the people who read them?
Fiona Garlick, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at State Trustees
‘Put your reader first,’ advises Sharon Martin, Communications and Engagement Manager at City West Water. She suggests three focus areas for creating corporate documents: structure, language, and formatting.
‘A well-structured report helps readers to quickly find what they need and skip what they don’t. Think short sentences and paragraphs, informative headlines, bullet points and tables to share more complex information, and good use of white space.’
Fiona suggests keeping corporate documents short, engaging, and visually stimulating. ‘Regulation and legislation often mean documents (like annual reports) need to be written in a certain way, however if you’re able to use feature articles, case studies or quirky topics, it can be far more engaging,’ she says. ‘Additionally, using smaller words, shorter sentences and less paragraphs can be a really effective way of getting stakeholders to read and understand your document, while making it accessible for those with low literacy levels.’
When it comes to putting the words together, plain English is best. ‘No one will ever complain that your report is too easy to understand!’ Sharon says. ‘A clear writing style will help readers understand more of what you’re saying. Delete unnecessary words and review the copy for jargon and technical terms.’
And finally, format your content in a way that is accessible for different reading styles. Using infographics, images, and tables to break up big chunks of text and display information in different ways.
Corporate documentation as a way of remaining transparent and accountable to the community
It is vital that we have trust in our major corporations, especially those delivering essential services. Corporate documentation plays a large role in providing a record of planning and performance. ‘It’s one of the few places when an organisation can be seen and evaluated in its entirety,’ Heidi says. ‘They are the vehicle through which we make commitments for the future and report on their delivery.’
‘Corporate documents are typically delivering a promise (here is what you can hold us to account to deliver) or sharing a result (did we achieve what we said we would?),’ Sharon notes. ‘They’re familiar public documents and communities and stakeholders can rightly expect to be able to access this information about an organisation from the people trusted to manage it. Importantly, audited annual reports also ensure accountability on a regular basis.’
Fiona adds that corporate documents can be a powerful tool for educating the wider community about the purpose of an organisation and their role in society. ‘Whether you’re a taxpayer, a ratepayer, a shareholder or a community member, corporate documents should be accessible for all to read and understand. They can give people an opportunity to understand things like what the organisation has achieved, how the business spends its money, and what’s happening with its workforce.’
Additionally, corporate documents need to tell the whole story of an organisation - both successes and failures. ‘Be honest about what has worked and what has not worked’, advises Heidi.
Ensuring that corporate documents have their own unique flavour – even if they come out every year!
Most corporate documents, such as Annual Reports, Corporate Plans, and others, are released each year. They need to remain consistent with an organisations brand and ethos, but equally, it is important that they don’t appear to just be the same document with the words changed.
So how can communications experts make each new edition ‘pop’?
‘This can be really challenging,’ Sharon admits. ‘Especially as the same content is largely prescribed each year.’ Smart graphic design is the key to creating a document that captures readers attention and stands out from previous versions. ‘Bookend a reporting year with a corporate plan and annual report that carry the same theme through their look and feel,’ Sharon suggests. ‘Tell a story, from sharing your commitments through to how you delivered on them.’
How is corporate reporting changing and evolving into the future?
As with all areas of business, it is important for organisations to keep pace with evolving technology. ‘We are constantly looking to transform our corporate reporting to ensure that they are relevant and meaningful to our readers,’ Heidi says. ‘This means keeping pace with best practice – we are excited to be trialling Integrated Reporting at the moment as a new way of demonstrating how we provide value to our community and stakeholders.’
With real-time reporting and advances in digital technology, the days of the thick printed corporate report may be numbered. Fiona notes that moving online has some advantages. ‘Creating and reading documents online means we can correct and update our documents, improve ease of reading and save time, money and trees,’ she says.
Sharon agrees that corporate documents are quickly moving online. ‘While print will always have a place for accessibility, digital-first means readers can access and dissect the contents to best meet their information needs.’
She also predicts that the usual cycle of annual reporting and planning may be disrupted in the future. ‘I expect there’ll also be more opportunities for data to be publicly available on-demand, outside of annual reporting timeframes,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, understanding what different stakeholders want and need from the corporate reporting process will always be central to any successful innovation in this space.’