How to avoid poorly prepared boardroom papers

As a business and risk consultant, I am often asked to prepare or proof-read briefing papers for the boardroom or executive leadership teams. Writing them is a skill but one that can be learned with a little practice and guidance. Poorly written board papers cause frustration and waste time and are unlikely to achieve the outcome the author sought. In contrast, effectively crafted boardroom papers arm the reader with the information they require to provide direction and guidance. Or simply facilitates a swift conclusion by approving your recommendation.

This article present seven easy to follow tips to improve your board paper writing skills.

ShoesPut yourself in the reader’s shoes.
Think like an Executive or Director. Like you, they have limited time and need to use it wisely. They need you to present your paper in an easy to read format that is short, sharp and to the point. They won’t have time to re-read it several times so your papers need to be well laid-out. They’ll need to be well planned, logical and focused on the issues and the outcomes you need. A good paper should be less than 2 pages long. If necessary, attach appendices to allow the reader to drill down into detail if they choose to.

Plan & Clarify
Before you dive into writing the paper or report, you’ll need clarity. You’ll need to consider what you want to communicate to the reader. What are the 2 or 3 critical issues you are trying to communicate? You’ll need to consider what action you want the reader to make. It’s highly unlikely they will try to 2nd guess you – they won’t do what you don’t ask them to do.

Solicit a 2nd opinion
Don’t fall into the trap that just because your paper is well written it’ll deliver the outcome you’re looking for. Many grammatically well written papers fall by the way. Explore the issues with key stakeholders before you commit to submitting anything to the Board. Ensure your facts are straight as Directors dislike major surprises.

DictionaryStructure
Ensure your paper’s title is clear so the reader immediately understands what it’s about. Is it presenting information for the board to make a decision (Decision Paper) or is to generate discussion (Discussion Paper) or simply to present an update (Information Paper). Include an outline of the paper’s purpose to help the reader focus. For example: This paper’s purpose is to present an update on project ABC’s progress.

Include headings and write concisely. I generally try to keep sentences to less than 18 words and use no more than 4 sentences per paragraph. Refrain from using jargon and don’t waffle or over-complicate your message – you don’t need to prove your intelligence with big words that require the reader to grab for a dictionary. Consider using graphs and tables if they would help your reader better understand complex data.

Present the advantages and disadvantages
Executives want to understand what options you are presenting. Outline each one’s advantages and disadvantages and remember that “do-nothing” may also be an option. As before, consider presenting them in tables if they will help your reader compare them to each other.

Think ahead
Be one step ahead – predict what questions your reader might ask. If you were them, what would you ask you? Have you written a comment that begs a “so what?” question that you haven’t thought of? Edit your paper before you submit it. Play the devil’s advocate and challenge your own rationale. Have you made a strong enough case for the reader to approve your recommendation? If additional resources or investment is required ensure that you have included details. Don’t take it for granted that the Board will roll-over and simply accept your version.

Call to Action
If you want the Board to approve a recommendation, tell them. Make it as easy as possible for them to understand what action they need to take and when. The ideal resolution you’re looking for recommendation is simply an “Agreed” resolution. If it’s a Discussion Paper or Information Paper you have failed if the Board come back with a thousand questions.

2 Comments
  1. Diane Francis 12 months ago

    Thanks Mark for a practical solution to writing board reports that get read. I’ve struggled for years to get our Board to read them. I think structure is probably the most important tip to take from this as a paper that rambles and leads nowhere will quickly annoy a board member.

  2. Simon Jackson 12 months ago

    Your suggestion about putting yourself in the reader’s shoes will help. I also like your idea about keeping sentences to less than 18 words as it helps focus on what I am trying to say and not just adding words simply for the sake of it.

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