Jim Davies focuses on how writing while market conditions are difficult can either make or break an annual report
When economic times are hard, the guiding principle of annual review writing seems to be camouflage. And most of the time it’s about as subtle as trying to cover up a pulsating boil with a cheap concealer pen. Bad news, apparently, is untenable to market analysts and shareholders, so it’s better to gloss over it, ignore it, or put a Groucho Marx moustache and spectacles on it.
One designer interviewed for this article recalled a review he’d worked on a few years ago. Though the client had had a disappointing year, progress on the annual review went smoothly enough until final artwork stage. Then the client suddenly got cold feet. ‘Change all the text to 8pt,’ he ordered. ‘Maybe no-one will read it.’ More commonly, companies will try to hide behind the dazzle of design, deliberately creating a graphic smoke-screen that belies the real message – vibrant wrapping to disguise the rather lacklustre contents.
But this doesn’t wash any more, after the falls from grace of Enron, WorldCom and Equitable Life among others, interested parties are demanding honesty and transparency – a warts-and-all approach together with a credible assurance that matters will be addressed and improved. As one fund manager memorably noted in the 2002 Merchant Handbook, which provides a valuable overview of reporting trends, ‘I immediately distrust reports that look too flashy. It’s like the chief executive wearing a toupee – there’s something to hide.’
Words too are commonly used to portray a somewhat questionable version of reality. Annual reviews are a major refuge for the worst excesses of corporate-speak – they drip with meaningless jargon, use sub-clause after sub-clause until a sentence takes on an almost Joycean complexity, their relentless incomprehensibility bores the reader into submission or stupor.
A recent article in the Financial Times by Lucy Kellaway hilariously debunked the abuse of the English language in the Accenture annual report, (though it must be said, they are by far from the only guilty party). She pointed to the strange vogue for recontextualising verbs like ‘to deliver’, ‘to unleash’, ‘to drive’ and ‘to leverage’, all firmly established in the bizarre lexicon of business – ‘Unleashing is what you do when you take your dog for a walk and then it usually cocks its leg on something,’ she wrote. ‘But now… it is a useful verb that can be applied to almost any positive activity – creativity, value and so on.’
She picked up on several plum, inane clichÃ©s, ‘There is no time like the present’, ‘We live in turbulent times’, and so on. And she left us to muse on a sentence that you can’t believe isn’t some form of outrageous self-parody: ‘Outsourcing is charged with aggressively expanding our global network of delivery centres as well as what we call our “solutions workforce” to help us lower our technology solutions costs.’ Is this actually written in the same wonderfully moving, evocative language that Charles Dickens and George Orwell used? It comes to something when you have to go to the lengths of translating whole sections of text into comprehensible English. And what’s more, it’s about as ugly as it is unnecessary.
But enough of the monstrous majority. Surely there must be someone out there producing reports that are in tune with the times? That use design and writing in tandem to convey a coherent, compelling message? The good news is that there are.
The doyen of annual report writing is Warren E Buffett, chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, a respected US holding company with a wide range of interests. Buffett’s chairman’s letters and annual reviews are eagerly anticipated (and virtually design free). He produces page after page of serious financial analysis in a style that’s more Damon Runyan than Harvard Business School. It’s refreshingly honest, open and amusing, peppered with revealing asides and quirky phraseology. His trick is simple, but highly effective. He writes as he talks, and you can almost picture an urbane, slightly patriarchal figure holding forth over the dinner table. ‘Soooo… except for a couple of favourable breaks, our pre-tax earnings last year would have been about $500m less than we actually reported. We’re happy, nevertheless, to bank the excess. As Jack Benny once said upon receiving an award: “I don’t deserve this honor – but, then, I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.”‘
Closer to home, the 2002 report for telecommunications company Ericsson, designed by SAS, with content provided by writer Tim Rich and brand consultant Leonard Rae, is jaw-droppingly frank. It eschewed any cover imagery for a bold straight-talking text: ‘2002 was tough. Our customers bought less equipment, competition increased, the roll-out of G3 was slow, and the market was hard to predict. Some observers see no end to these difficulties. We take a very different view.’ Inside, sections begin with similarly candid introductions, which are supported by a forecast of where Ericsson and the industry would hope to be heading in the future. ‘While it’s direct and honest,’ says Rich, ‘it explains that there’s a lot of promise if we get things right. The imagery and information design strike a nice balance with the text; they elaborate and bring it to life rather than competing with it.’
e Elsewhere, writer Howard Fletcher continues his sterling work for British Design & Art Direction, the 2002 report designed by Four IV resembling a small, rather sober desk diary. This couldn’t be more different from Frost Design’s A3 effort the previous year, which really put words in the spotlight as it was entirely handwritten. The Design Council’s 2002 review by Johnson Banks uses a typically witty juxtaposition of headlines and images, making salient points elegantly and with economy.
For more mainstream clients, writers Richard Owsley and Graham Jones have made a good job of putting a complex message across for Marks & Spencer in its 2002 report, though Pauffley’s accompanying design doesn’t exactly lift it off the page. Dragon’s 2002/3 report and accounts for Whitbread is more colourful, with something of a magazine flavour – pull quotes, tint boxes, punchy colour photography sit together with genial interviews with the company’s leading lights. ‘It takes its cue from journalism rather than classic annual reporting, if you will,’ confirms Dragon director Keith Wells, who was closely involved in the writing process. Taking the interview theme a stage further, housing charity Servite Houses 2002 annual report designed by CDT, used writer Tom Lynham to help establish an accessible and positive tone based around very human first-person experiences, rather than bricks and mortar.
And from buildings to tool hire, namely Speedy Hire, designed and produced by Merchant with NB Studio, this is a gem of a report which skilfully blends the visual and written language of the construction industry. Colourful warning stickers, the kind you’ll find slapped all over hire tools are laid at angles over stylish black-and-white reportage photographs by Phil Sayer. They contain short, sharp facts – ‘We are the only listed, national, pure UK tool hire company. Simple’; ‘More good managers required – apply within’; ‘It’s usually far cheaper to hire tools intermittently than to own and repair them forever’. The argument is carefully constructed, concisely written (by Merchant’s managing director Robert Moser from internal interviews), and cleverly conveyed.
‘The key is to articulate relevant issues effectively,’ say Moser. ‘There’s a lot riding on an annual report, it will definitely impact on your reputation and so potentially your share price. Ultimately, it’s the companies who communicate clearly who will be the best understood and respected.’ And the words they use will play a significant part in this process.