Six things communicators – and their CEOs – can learn from Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders

Warren Buffett's Annual Letter to Shareholders

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. dropped on Feb. 27, and there’s several lessons that communicators (and their executives) can learn from it. 

Don’t worry about length as long as it is compelling. At fourteen pages, this letter is long enough to send any communications pro over the edge. But it doesn’t – because the content is interesting. His letter checks all the boxes of an annual update: How are we doing? Where have we been? Where are we going? Big picture. Details. But he also adds stories and antidotes. So, while it is very long. It is very readable. 

Voice matters. Another reason the length doesn’t matter is that this letter seriously feels like you’re sitting across the table from Buffett having a chat. It may be the most conversational corporate communication I’ve ever read. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself.  

Don’t re-explain what has already been taught. As long as the letter is, Buffett doesn’t waste valuable space re-explaining ideas or concepts that he’s addressed in prior letters. Instead, he refers his readers (specifically calling out new shareholders) on where to learn more or to catch up. 

Make it personal, but keep it relevant. Most executives know that sharing a bit of their personal lives is important in communicating their humanity. Few are able to do it in a way that is authentic or purposeful. Buffett takes his readers through a bit of a history lesson on himself and Berkshire Hathaway, which might sound boring, but it serves to make a relevant point: “Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.” (This, a quote from his 1983 Annual Report.)

Buffett calls out no less than a dozen individuals including business partners and long-time investors. These personal references serve two purposes – he’s sharing credit for the success of BH, but he’s also introducing the reader to his friends – and it is obvious that is how he feels about these associates. 

Embrace the internal going external. Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders is among the most eagerly anticipated documents in the investment / equities world each year. I’ll venture to say that it reaches more people who are not shareholders than it does its intended audience. We all know that every internal communication is a key stroke away from becoming external, so it is refreshing to see someone who obviously embraces this. I believe great brands should not shy away from the position they hold within their industry, and this is a great example of an organization at the top of its game leaning into its role of influence. 

Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong. Buffett spends several paragraphs talking about a significant error he made in paying too much for Precision Castparts (PCC). He comments on his beliefs at the time, but he isn’t defensive and he makes sure that he alone (not the CEO of the company) accepts blame. In a clear admission of guilt he says: “PCC is far from my first error…[b]ut it’s a big one.” A good leader isn’t afraid to admit when they’ve screwed up. A great one will put it in writing.

My interest in the investing world is a relatively new one and this was my first year “awaiting” Buffett’s famous letter. Given his style, it won’t be my last. 

How great would it be if all our internal stakeholders couldn’t wait for our organization’s next executive letter?

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