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.