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May 30, 2017

Storytelling in Annual Reports

When Numbers Tell Stories

People read exciting books until 2 am, even if they have to leave the house early in the morning. At the cinema, they sit still for up to three hours and hold their breath as they watch The Lord of the Rings. The other way around, a high-gloss lacquered annual report, that was produced at high cost, will be read for an average of only three minutes* before it gathers dust on a shelf somewhere. And this despite the fact that several employees of a company have been working intensively for three to nine months on creating this report. Why is it like that?

Year After Year – To Redesign the Annual Report

The amount of information we have to absorb every day is growing and our attention span is constantly becoming shorter. An annual report focuses mainly on numbers and facts, which can be quite monotonous for most readers. But the final report can also be made entertaining and emotional. Through credible storytelling, it is possible to achieve what numbers and data often cannot do: Communicating facts in a plausible way by also conveying emotions. By means of the following examples, we will show you how the method of storytelling can be used to make an annual report more lively.

Annual Report Designs – From the World of Images to Company Values

The Palfinger Executive Board is proud of its growth (Quelle: Palfinger.ag)

Only a fraction of the readers, such as financial analysts, are looking for the hard facts. The rest wants to be entertained with exciting stories, headlines and pictures. The annual report of Palfinger AG from Austria, a leading manufacturer of hydraulic lifting devices for cranes, has achieved exactly this despite the dry topic. The overall topic of the report was “We have grown”. The company took this literally and presented photos of all employees, including the executive board, in bursting shirts or suits that were too short. A very simple, but clear message. The pictures, combined with the core message of the report, really put a smile on the reader’s faces. Through this picture message, the reader is immersed directly in the corporate world.

Why this works: Bold or funny pictures can be used to help the information reach the minds of shareholders, partners, investors and financial supervisory authorities more easily. The story imprints itself in the reader’s memory and will always be positively associated with the company. These are not impersonal stock photos, but pictures that show the employees and the executive board from their personal side and at the same time reflect company values such as courage and humor.

Image Section of a Final Report – Room and Playground for Stories

In addition to the classic numerical part, the management report, the image section offers plenty of room for individual design. Behind a company or an organization, there are not only numbers, but above all, faces and stories. The readers should be able to take a look behind the scenes – reports or exciting interviews are used to tell the real stories from the company. In 2015, the management of the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk presented an annual report, which made the readers ask themselves: Is this an annual report or is it already a magazine? Although the work contains all the hard facts that a listed company has to provide, such as the financial, compensation and corporate governance reports, the front page with its headline “Why do so many people in cities get diabetes?” as well as the whole report strongly reminded of a magazine. With skyscrapers and reading tips on the front page, readers got a taste for more. Statistics were used to show how many people suffer from diabetes and that as many as 193 million of the world’s population do not even know that they are diabetic.

Cover of the Novo Nordisk annual report 2015 (Quelle: Novo Nordisk)

Why this works: The pharmaceutical company turns the analyses and numbers on the drug business into a comprehensive topic and provides readers with numerous insights and information on diabetes and other diseases. Furthermore, the report also shows the people behind the numbers. The topic of the company is thus presented with great added value for the readers.

Employee Portraits – The Heroes Behind the Numbers

The report is not only supposed to deal with dry numbers, but also with people who are crucial to the company’s success. The public cleansing service of Hamburg provides two very successful examples: In the 2012 annual report, garbage men portray their city – with their garbage cans. After all, hardly anyone knows their city as well as the Hamburg garbage men, who are on the road every day in all weathers. With rebuilt garbage cans, they photograph their favorite places, which they have discovered on tours through all parts of the city. In the 2014 annual report, employees tell stories that happen to them at work in the morning. “I’m on tour with my colleagues at an early stage in the team. Sometimes, there are casual hellos or other nice events. On the Barmbeker Strasse, for example, I regularly came across a blind lady who was walking on the pavement at dawn. She was very scared when I passed her with the little street sweeper, which made many loud noises. One day, when I realized that she was scared, I stopped and started a conversation with the lady. She touched the machine all around and let me explain everything to her. From this day on, she was cheerily waving towards me every morning”, said Elke Below, who works for the public cleansing service of Hamburg.

SRH managing director Prof. Dr. Rüdiger Siechau and „Tonnograf“ Michael Pfohlmann present the photo of the city hall to Hamburg’s first mayor Olaf Scholz (Quelle: stadtreinigung.hamburg)

Why this works: The employees are the real heroes of the company, and this is what makes the city cleansing service so successful. This does not only result in an entertaining annual report, but also makes the company more tangible, appealing and personal. These are stories written by life itself.

*according to Jochen Rädeker, founder and managing partner of Strichpunkt; Professor of Corporate Identity at the University of Constance, Interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung on May 17, 2010

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Mira Tokic
Senior-Beraterin bei Mashup Communications
Durch die langjährige Erfahrung in der PR-Branche bewahrt Mira in Krisensituationen einen kühlen Kopf und weiß, dass alles gut wird. Sie liebt, was sie tut und freut sich Teil eines so tollen Teams zu sein.