Writing Tips from Annual Reports

Prov­ing that good writ­ing can be found any­where, writer Nancy Fried­man points to Berkshire Hath­away CEO War­ren Buf­fett’s annu­al reports as examples of excel­lent copy­writ­ing. I can­not but agree.

Fried­man sub­mits that we can learn to write bet­ter copy by study­ing War­ren Buf­fett’s annu­al reports, offer­ing these six tips, high­lighted after study­ing his annu­als:

  • Tell stor­ies. Read­ing a Berkshire annu­al report is like sit­ting across a booth in a diner with a great con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist pos­sessed of both intel­li­gence and insa­ti­able curi­os­ity.
  • Use vivid lan­guage.
  • Talk about people. It’s one thing to say, as almost every­one does, that busi­ness is about people. It’s anoth­er thing entirely to por­tray those people fully fleshed and full of foibles.
  • Be gen­er­ous with humour. Every Berkshire annu­al brims with jokes (includ­ing some groan­ers), drollery, and wit.
  • Get to the point. “Be fear­ful when oth­ers are greedy and greedy when oth­ers are fear­ful,” Buf­fett writes. That’s an entire busi­ness philo­sophy in twelve words.
  • Let your enthu­si­asm show.

As Ana­stas­ia poin­ted out in the com­ments sec­tion, Buf­fett wrote the won­der­ful pre­face to the SEC’s A Plain Eng­lish Hand­book: How to cre­ate clear SEC dis­clos­ure doc­u­ments (pdf). He offers this “unori­gin­al but use­ful tip”:

Write with a spe­cif­ic per­son in mind. When writ­ing Berkshire Hath­away’s annu­al report, I pre­tend that I’m talk­ing to my sis­ters. I have no trouble pic­tur­ing them: Though highly intel­li­gent, they are not experts in account­ing or fin­ance. They will under­stand plain Eng­lish, but jar­gon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the inform­a­tion I would wish them to sup­ply me if our pos­i­tions were reversed. To suc­ceed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sin­cere desire to inform.

That’s the key; pic­tur­ing your audi­ence as intel­li­gent non-experts.