‘Directors don’t read their board papers’

Directors don't read papers‘We know they don’t read their board papers because they ask questions that are addressed in the papers.’

I hear this complaint often from people who write and present to boards.

Write so directors can recall the content

I am sure there are some directors who rely on meetings rather than their board pack, but in my experience most directors take their fiduciary duties seriously. And I am sure many are reading APRA’s report on the Commonwealth Bank with great interest.

While I appreciate that writers get annoyed by seemingly stupid questions, I wonder if part of the fault lies in the way they are writing. What if directors had read their papers, but not managed to tease out the key messages from the waffle?

Over the last few years, I’ve read hundreds of board papers and I often have to re-read papers several times to feel confident that I understand what the writer is saying. Given the amount of material directors have to read, it’s no wonder they miss things. Writers don’t appreciate that directors may allocate 10 minutes to read a paper that they have spent 10 hours or more slaving over.

Imagine if directors could read and understand a board paper in a single reading and know what action, if any, was required? When they glanced at the paper in the board meeting, they could quickly recall the content.

That would be a win for everyone, but not many papers are like that.

State the key messages in the summary

Many board paper templates have a summary section (sometimes called other names, such as Overview, Key points, Discussion questions). When confronted with this section, most writers treat it as an introduction and state what the paper will cover.

Yet if writers want directors to quickly recall what they’ve read, a summary is an excellent place to remind them. For instance, I recently asked a writer what the key messages were in his paper. He was able to tell me:

  • Products have been refined to meet customers’ needs based on demographics
  • Costs associated with this are $X
  • Potential risks will be managed by…

Another example:

  • We’ve made more money in the last financial year
  • As a consequence of making more money, we have an X issue, which we can address by Y

In writing, you need to be more specific than in speech. For instance, you’d need to state what you mean by ‘refined’ in the first example above, but if you clarify your messages before writing, you can then place them upfront in your paper.

Provide balance between the big picture and details

Some writers think when I talk about getting to the point upfront that I am asking them to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator as if they were writing for a tabloid newspaper. They tell me that their topics are complex and that it will take directors years to understand the technicalities of their business. One CEO recently told me that he expected directors to take three years to come up to speed.

It’s a question of balance. Directors don’t need to understand the full complexities of a business – they are not on staff – but they do need to  know what’s happening in the organisation and they need evidence to support high-level messaging so they can make decisions with comfort and confidence. Scandals emerging from the Banking Commission in Australia make me wonder how well-informed many directors are.

Obviously, making sure directors are informed is not just a matter of providing better-written papers, but they would help!

Remember the basic principles of writing well

Sometimes I think we over-complicate things and if we stopped and asked basic questions before we wrote, we would write more clearly.

The basic principles of writing are simple:

  • What do you want to say and why?
  • Is a paper the best way to communicate your message?
  • What does your audience know about this topic?
  • What outcome do you want?

Then you need to:

  • State your key messages upfront
  • Contextualise your messages with background and relevant details
  • Structure your writing for your reader, not yourself
  • Group information so it is easy to read and remember
  • Use language your audience will relate to

If writers wrote simply and clearly, I am sure directors would find their papers easier to read and ask fewer questions that have already been addressed in the paper.