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Author Archive for Mary Morel

Tips to improve board and committee papers

How to improve your board paper

Many writers struggle with what to put in and what to leave out of a board or committee paper. Part of the difficulty is that board papers have to be SO concise these days. Gone are the days when you could write 10 pages. Now most boards want two-to-four pages max.

Ways to reduce clutter and unnecessary details

Get to the point upfront

Good board papers get to the point. You need to start with the key messages up front because directors are time poor and have a lot of papers to read in a short period of time. They may only spend 10 minutes reading a paper that you slaved over for days.

If you take them through your argument first, they have to follow your reasoning but if your paper doesn’t flow well, you risk losing them along the way. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of people not realising what we’re saying when it’s perfectly clear to us.

Although many people realise the value of spending time clarifying what they want to say before they start writing, many find it easier to start typing and think as they go. Often this stream-of-consciousness draft is a mixture of relevant and irrelevant information and good and clumsy writing. It’s invariably waffly.

But all is not lost.

If you’re brave, you can delete that first draft and start again. It’s served its purpose to help you clarify your thoughts.

But most of us are not that brave. We’re afraid that we’ll lose some gems if we start again. In that case, I suggest you slash and burn your way back to clarity.

First you need to put your writing aside for a while, so you approach it from a fresh perspective. Then tidy it up. When you tidy up your writing, you can see it more clearly.

What I mean by ‘tidy it up’ is do some – or all – of the following:

Create headings for new ideas

Even if you are using a template, you can create headings within sections. When you break up your document with headings, you can see its structure more clearly.

Then you can assess if each section is relevant, if your information is in the right order and if you’ve left out something important.

Break up paragraphs

Most people write much shorter paragraphs than 10 years, but when I’m confronted with a long paragraph, I break it up arbitrarily so I can work with it more easily.

I make sure each new paragraph has a topic sentence (main idea in the first sentence), then assess the paragraph for relevance and waffle.

Shorten lists for ease of reading

Like paragraphs, lists have got shorter and the first three words must get to the point so readers can easily skim-read the list.

You can shorten lists by:

  • Grouping items that go together
  • Combining some points
  • Deleting points of dubious value
  • Putting some of the information into prose

Attack your sentences for length and clarity

Give your sentences the same treatment – tighten waffly phrases, delete unnecessary words, fix clumsy grammar and then assess for relevance.

You can make an enormous difference to your writing at this level.

Check your graphs and tables

Too often, board and committee papers have tables and graphs that add little value and aren’t integrated into the text. Make sure the graphs and tables are useful and that you’ve drawn an insight from the data.

What next?

Now your document is cleaner, you can put yourself in the directors’ headspace and read it for meaning.

I’ve written about tightening and deleting, but sometimes you also need to beef up your messaging. I recently asked a friend to read a draft proposal. She told me that although I had stressed in our conversation how important it was for writers to understand the board’s role, that hadn’t come across in the proposal. Just adding a couple of paragraphs provided greater clarity.

When you’re checking, make sure that you have:

  • Got to the point upfront with high-level messaging
  • Made it clear how you want readers to respond
  • Provided relevant information to support your messaging
  • Written clearly and concisely

Want help with your board papers?

Email mary@marymorel.com.au for more information about how I can help you and your organisation improve the quality of board papers.

Writing board and executive papers

Writing executive and board papers

How to write board papers when your organisation doesn’t have executive papers

I’ve worked for a few organisations this year, large and small, that don’t have executive papers. The problem with not having executive papers is that writers produce board papers that read like executive papers. I call them pseudo-board papers.

With small-to-medium-sized organisations, I can understand their not wanting executives to spend more time writing papers. As one CEO said: ‘There’s no way I’m going to introduce another level of reporting.’ In that organisation, most writers were technical experts and many found writing difficult and time-consuming, taking time away from ‘real’ work.

In larger organisations, the same reasoning may apply, but I wonder if the benefits of executive papers might outweigh the disadvantages of more reporting.

The pseudo-board papers I read included information such as:

  • Social media metrics in raw data (e.g. number of ‘likes’)
  • Individual safety incidents described in-depth without any insight into trends or action being taken
  • All staff movements given with no commentary on the significance of the information

NB I have used the term ‘board papers’ to refer to both regular reports and one-off papers.

So what’s the difference between executive and board papers?

Board papers are concise, strategic and risk-focused, while executive papers may be longer and more operational. Board papers will include insights and commentary, giving the writers’ opinion, and executive papers may be more factual and data-driven.

In simple terms, I think of board papers telling me the ‘what’ and ‘why’ with a bit of the ‘how’, and executive papers telling me ‘what’ and with a bit of ‘why’ and a lot of the ‘how’.

Write yourself an executive paper

When writing board papers, I often encourage people to think about their key messages first, then work out what evidence and data they need to support their messages.

I wonder if you need to take a different approach if your organisation doesn’t have executive papers and try writing one yourself. You need to have all the data in one place to see it clearly and analyse it for insights, highlights or issues.

Some of your data may be useful for an appendix but think carefully before providing an appendix. Many writers undo the benefit of a concise paper when they throw in an appendix to ‘cover themselves’. While appendices occasionally have their place, they are compulsory, reading for directors – not optional –  so must be relevant.

Think of your audience’s role

When thinking of the difference between executive and board papers, it helps to think of the different roles of a board member and an executive. A board has an overview role, so needs to understand what is happening, but doesn’t need all the details. The value directors often bring to a topic is being able to look at it from a broader standpoint. They can’t do that if they’re mired in data that lacks a framework. An executive team is operational, so needs more detail, but often doesn’t need as much background information.

As well as thinking about their roles, it helps if you see your audience as real people. Many writers have never met the board and may never do so. If that is the case, it’s useful to look at the directors’ profiles, which are usually on the internet. Having an understanding of directors’ qualifications and experience helps you appreciate what context to provide and what questions they might ask. Talking to someone who has presented to the board can also flesh out your knowledge.

You will know the executive team – if not personally, at least by reputation – and will have a better understanding of their information requirements. Although they won’t all be subject-matter experts on your topic, you can often use more jargon and provide less background information.

What do you want your audience to know or do?

Once you’ve got all your data in one place and are thinking about your audience, you need to pitch your writing at the right level. It helps if you ask yourself:

What do I want my audience to know or do after reading my board report or paper?

In the examples I’ve given earlier, the writers wanted to inform directors about the current state of play and maybe highlight issues that the directors needed to know about. If there was nothing contentious or newsworthy in these papers, the directors won’t need to discuss them.

The information would now be dealt with differently:

  • The social media metrics would be analysed and linked to a strategy and key performance indicators.
  • The safety report would link to key performance indicators with exceptions, good and bad, noted. If necessary, there could be discussion about a particular issue, and some data could be included in an appendix.
  • Only key staff movements would be noted, unless there were a sudden rise in resignations that needed an explanation.

As you’re writing a board paper, you’ll be thinking about what you want to communicate. Once you’ve written it, put it aside and then look at it through an imaginary director’s eyes. Ask yourself:

What will the directors know or what action will they take after reading this report or paper?

Reviewing your report or paper from their perspective can help you refine your content.

Learn more

Learn more about board-paper services.

Enrol in my online board-paper course, Write to Govern.