Boards and committees rely on regular monthly or quarterly reports, e.g. finance, risk, and safety, to keep them informed. These reports will either reassure them that the organisation is on track or alert them to any ill winds blowing their way.
Sounds straightforward, right? In practice, board reports often fall short from a writing perspective. Many are verbose and overrun with detail meaning directors have to wade through dross to fulfil their monitoring and oversight role.
Apart from being tedious to read, there are serious downsides to poorly written reports, namely:
- They waste everyone’s time: Dense, detailed reports take ages for executives to prepare and a long time for directors to read. No sooner is one report finished, than it’s time to start the next one. They’re a bit like dirty dishes.
- What’s the point? When directors receive a lot of information that’s not well structured, they may lose sight of the big picture or miss a buried warning that something is off track.
- Risk of micromanaging: There’s often a detail person on the board; a person who will read all the fine print and every line in an appendix. It’s great that they are diligent, but not good if they move from their oversight role into management mode (‘Did we pay for that signage or was it complimentary?’ ‘How are you going to collect better data on our suppliers?’) These kinds of questions divert other directors’ attention from the main points you’re aiming to get across.
Tips to improve your board reports
1. Start with a good template
Many writers don’t appreciate the value of a template—and, having seen a lot of clunky templates, I can understand why. Nonetheless, templates matter for structure, consistency and branding.
Meaningful headings create a strong, logical structure. When regular reports have the same major headings in each report, information and trends can be easily compared. When people are creative and write headings to suit the moment, this comparability is diluted. That’s not to say, new headings can’t be added, but the regular headings should remain constant for consistency.
Consistency also applies to formatting, which is a branding issue. I have worked with several organisations that have a board paper template everyone must use, but no overall report template. The end result is that executives choose their own look and feel – different fonts, colours, page alignment, numbering and so on.
2. Start with a clear brief
Many reports have several contributors who may not even see the final result. When writers prepare their sections in isolation, executives often receive a disjointed, multi-messaged report they have to whip into shape in a very short time.
This problem can be minimised if executives work with their team to set a clear brief and work out the key messages at the beginning. Then everyone is on the same page, and writers understand how their section fits into the whole report.
3. Get the right balance of visuals and words
Not all reports need visuals (graphs, tables, charts, images), but some may benefit from a dashboard of performance metrics, or visuals interspersed with the text.
A few reports, such as finance, will obviously be data-driven, but they still need commentary to explain the significance of the data or provide insights.
4. Condense and then assess
A clear brief will go a long way to solving length and verbosity issues but may not eradicate the problem completely.
Then the solution is the ‘red pen’. I don’t write board reports but do rewrite and edit some. When I am condensing information, I first look for the key messages in each section and make sure they are upfront. I then tighten paragraphs and sentences by deleting words and tightening phrases. I can usually reduce sections by at least a third, and this process does not take long. If you’re editing someone else’s work, you just have to be careful that you don’t change the meaning.
Then I sit back and ask: ‘so what’? Do directors really need this information?
5. Write an honest and compelling summary
A summary provides a current and forward-looking focus that balances much of the data in the report that will inevitably be backward-looking, describing past performance and results.
While analyses will be provided in commentary in the body, a summary synthesises this information and gives directors a clear view of the high and low lights of the current situation. It can also alert directors to potential good or bad news on the horizon. Directors appreciate transparency and no one wins when information is ‘massaged’ to hide bad news.
6. Final checks
I do two final checks when I am reviewing and editing board reports.
- I make a cup of tea and stand in the garden. As I sip my tea, I ask myself what I can recall from the report. I do this check because I know directors are often reading 300 or more pages in a sitting, and I want the information in ‘my’ report to be memorable.
- My second check is to put the document aside overnight. Writing always looks different the next day when you have some distance from it.
If you need help to improve the written quality of your board reports, ring me on +61 400 686 600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Working with Mary on our organisation’s risk and compliance reports improved their quality and saved me time. The Committee chair and its members commented on the difference.’
General Manager, Risk & Compliance