Avoiding Annual Report Anxiety

by Meredith Vehar, MPA
Associate Director of Communications
Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah

You know it’s fall when the air is crisper, sunlit days are shorter, leaves turn…and annual report anxieties elevate. Where did the time go? Who said that quote? Was that event even this year? For those of us on Cancer Center communications and marketing teams, the pressure is on to produce a comprehensive, beautifully designed publication that showcases the organization’s highest accomplishments and most meaningful stories. But this obligatory booklet doesn’t have to induce college finals-week flashbacks. Here are some tips from my decade-plus of experience.

Keep track all year.

Set up a shared document where team members can add thoughts throughout the year. Have a shared folder where source material and other assets (i.e., press releases, photos, media advisories) can be easily saved. Percolating ideas and collecting assets throughout the months reduces year-end panic and the sense of starting from scratch.


This is a great way to get creative juices flowing. Grab that list of thoughts and ideas from throughout the year and start exploring. In addition to the need-to-have topics in an annual report (leadership messages, major events, scientific and treatment breakthroughs), what stuck with you? What made you proud to be part of your organization? What patient or caregiver story stood out? This type of group reflection helps tease out themes and visual concepts that make each year’s report uniquely reflect collective experiences.

Set a timeline.

Work backward from your deadline and build in time for every stage of the process, from content creation to subject-matter-expert reviews to press checks. Add buffer time for the unexpected. And, of course, expect the unexpected.

Get personal.

Look for a human-interest angle whenever possible. Pair a science-heavy feature with a hopeful patient story related to the same cancer type. When interviewing a doctor about a new surgical procedure, ask why she chose oncology as the focus of her life’s work. Be mindful of covering various disease groups and departments—in an individual report, but also from year to year—so faculty and staff feel recognized.

Get visual.

Use infographics to show data and statistics in an interesting way. These also serve to break up major sections or themes. As an added bonus, infographics can be repurposed for the year ahead such as part of media kits. Incorporate large and sometimes full-page photographs. A compelling photo will draw in readers.

Nail down the design details.


Once your team has decided on a general design style, ask the designer to lay out an example for every element the publication will contain such as captions, sidebars, statistics, table of contents, and donor name lists. Include some mock story pages to help determine word count. It saves time to make these decisions beforehand rather than while the designer is in the middle of layout.

Look at the big picture.

Big Picture
After stories are written and edited and the layout and design are well underway, take a holistic look. On my team, we print all the spreads and tape everything up on the wall–then stand back. This enables us to see the overall flow of the report, shift placement of stories if needed, or consider where a layout template change is warranted. This also becomes a useful way to track and maintain version control, make final editorial and proofreading marks, and indicate needed approvals.

As communicators, we often hold the microphone. It’s a privilege to share our Cancer Centers’ stories and accomplishments through annual reports. With a good plan in place, we can spend less time worrying about the process and more time telling the stories.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute Communications team received a 2019 Americ​an Inhouse Design Award for the print version of Together We Can: 2019 Report to Our Community. From more than 6,000 entries, only a small handful of design projects were selected as winners. Established in 1963 and based in New York, Graphic Design USA is among the premier publications for marketing and communications professionals. View Together We Can: 2019 Report to Our Community online.​​

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