Avoid vague language

The fifth of our “Nine Secrets of Integrated Reporting Success”

Until recently, greenwashing was rampant in the corporate world. Because boards and executive teams had little interest in sustainability, they limited their investment in creating quality ESG disclosure for stakeholders. Reports were often poorly written and designed, marooned from the business’s corporate strategy, and routinely ignored the needs and interests of their readers.

But the rise of integrated reporting – driven by institutional investor interest in ESG – has changed incentives around ESG disclosure for boards and senior management. In order to secure the patient capital of large fund managers and superannuation funds (and to avoid the personal consequences of activist investors targeting them over issues like excessive remuneration or inaction on climate change), boards and senior managers have become more focused on the quality and transparency of their non-financial reporting.

That doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. Greenwashing is still commonplace, and many businesses continue to use sloppy, ‘boilerplate’ language in their integrated reporting. In fact, a recent Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) State of Disclosure Report revealed that companies used generic, vague and non-specific language 53 percent of the time when addressing an ESG topic.

Our tips to write better reports?

  • Write like you speak, in plain English. This means using the active voice, simple words and short sentences. Imagine you’re writing for a curious school student.
  • Avoid jargon, especially jargon verbs: synergise, optimise, ideate, thrive, elevate, ignite, leverage, drive.
  • Avoid tired clichés: even one damages your credibility (e.g. our people are our greatest strength).
  • Avoid marketing spin: an integrated report is a strategic document, not an advertising campaign. Your readers don’t want to read salesy gibberish (e.g our digital innovation unleashes the creativity of the world around us, allowing us all to thrive).
  • Only make a claim when you have evidence to support it (e.g. we are committed to gender diversity, as evidenced by the fact that XX percent of all senior management roles in 2020 were filled by women).