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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.

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