Making your Annual Report a Page-Turner

Making your Annual Report a Page-Turner

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As we approach the end of another academic year, many of us will be needing to submit or create some form of annual report - a document detailing the various ways in which we meaningfully supported the mission, vision, and goals of our departments, divisions, and institutions. All too often these reports are created, perused once or twice, then filed into a drawer, onto a shelf, or into digital archives to languish for all eternity.

There’s a reason for this. More often than not, they lack anything that would draw people to read them. They have little to no personality. They often fail to do anything to increase the reader’s investment in what you do. Why? Because they are chock full of facts:
Numbers and metrics.
Charts and graphs.
Dollars raised and allocated funds spent.

These reports provide an accurate accounting of the work done in your organization over the last year. The problem is that they’re just that – accountings. They don’t tell a story. 

Facts and figures by themselves are not overly compelling. Place them in a context for their origins, however, and there’s a bit more for the reader to appreciate. Roll them into a comprehensive story where the data and information you’ve painstakingly and lovingly collected over the last 12 months reinforce key elements of your work, and suddenly you have something people will remember.

And you want people to remember your work. You want them to remember you, why your department in your division exists, and how you help promote the academic mission of the institution.


Because you want those leaders to think about how what you do benefits their own work. You want them to think about partnering with you on future projects, on grant opportunities, on meetings with donors. Even more, you want them to tell your story for you.

How might you do this? A few suggestions.

1. Look and feel matters

Make sure that your report looks like something people would want to read. Sure, employ university fonts and colors, but beyond that make it attractive and engaging. Start with a strong premise or hook for your story. Use blank space to highlight a particular point or quotation. Make visuals bold and distinct. Lay out a good reason as to why readers should turn the page or click to the next section. To that end, determine if you’ll have a digital version, a print version, or both, as well as how you’ll distribute the final piece.

2. Tell a good story

Edgar Allen Poe didn’t win anyone over by writing about a rainstorm or a passing shower, but of a dark and stormy night. Charles Dickens didn’t start off writing about Paris and London by talking about the cities themselves but, rather, of the best and worst of times. Mary Shelley wrote not of Frankenstein’s monster first, but of a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister. All of these beginnings compelled the reader, well, to read on, to find out what would happen next. Believe it or not, but your annual report can inspire the same feelings – provided you give readers something to look forward to.

3. Boldly celebrate your impact.

What is an annual report but an opportunity to show others who may not see (or realize they are seeing) your work and how it meaningfully affects students and campus? Take the opportunity to proclaim all that you’ve done. Use data callouts, quotations from participants, pictures, or even short narratives to demonstrate the value of your efforts.

4. Make your work relatable.

Even on a college campus, language creates barriers between departments and divisions, faculty and staff. Make sure that anyone reading your report can immediately know what it is you’re discussing. Context matters, so be sure to set your story so it can be understood and appreciated. Further, build a context where readers can imagine themselves attending your programming in the future.

5. Provide good, well-constructed visuals.

Unlike this blog post, save the lovely picture at the beginning, do not just write a lot of words. Pictures, callouts, and data visualizations will serve to not only break up your text, but also to give readers a picture to recall in the future. They may not remember your paragraph of explanation, but they’ll remember a positive result displayed as a percentage in the institution’s primary color in 72 point font. Infographics can also make a lasting impression on folks.

6. Close the loop.

Your story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your ending should hearken back to the beginning and the middle. It should provide next steps and future direction, maybe even a goal or two for the following year. Leave the reader with a sense of why your work, the story you just told, and the future for your area matters.

Not sure where to start? Here are two specific references I turn to:

Stories that Stick: How Storytelling can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform your Business by Kindra Hall (2019). Kindra is a master storyteller, and concisely walks you through how you can use storytelling to enhance your work and change the way folks view and remember you. Kindra’s website ( is also a great resource, and she has a weekly email you can subscribe to for more tips and tricks.

Effective Data Visualization: The Right Chart for the Right Data (2nd Edition) by Dr. Stephanie Evergreen (2021). This edition is forthcoming in August, but the first edition sits on my shelf and is used often to determine how best to show a statistic or demonstrate a trend. The best part is that she’s written it so that you can build compelling charts with nothing more than Excel. She, too, has a website ( and a newsletter, both of which are extraordinarily helpful as well.

In the end, this post is not the end-all, be-all when it comes to storytelling and writing compelling annual reports. That said, it is hoped that it can inspire you and your colleagues to rethink how you share your accomplishments in ways that will create lasting memories in the minds and hearts of readers. I invite you to share your own tips and suggestions in the comments, as well as to share exemplary annual reports that you’ve found or produced. As we all move toward this inevitable task, perhaps we can use the collective knowledge of this group to create proverbial best-sellers out of all our reports.


Matthew D. Pistilli, Ph.D., Iowa State University


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