Structure and coherence

How to write a board paper that flows well

structure your board paper to make it flow wellWhen you’re reporting to the board, you’re writing to inform them or help them make an informed decision. A well-structured and coherent paper covers what directors need to know in a logical order from their point of view, not yours.

Before you reach for your template, you should have worked out what you want to say and the order you want to say it in. I am aware many of us don’t plan meticulously before we start writing, and if you rely on rewriting to clarify your thinking, you should treat your first draft as a brain dump, and structure your writing in your second draft.

If you reach for your template before clarifying your thoughts, there is a danger that you will write in sections rather than treat your paper as a cohesive whole.

Structure and coherence are interlinked, but coherence is more than just structure; it provides connections and signposts for the reader. When a board paper is coherent, the writing flows naturally and logically. You probably don’t even notice the techniques that make it flow well because you are just reading for meaning. But when documents aren’t coherent, they seem disjointed and you have to make the mental connections. I often have to re-read a board paper to join the dots.

Before I discuss structuring and coherence principles, let’s take a look at basic structural differences between noting and decision papers.

Noting papers

In a noting paper (also called information papers) there is no need for a recommendation, and you may not always need a background statement. Sometimes a noting paper will cover a single topic, and the most important information will be at the top. At other times, they may cover several topics and information will be chunked into sections or follow a chronological order.

The challenge is to decide what information to include and what to leave out. Wherever possible, information should be linked to the relevant strategy and key performance indicators. Directors need to know how well the organisation is tracking, yet too often writers provide a description of activities without relating them to performance or outcomes.

Ask yourself: What is the significance of this information? What question do directors want answered?

For example, if an energy company was providing a paper on bushfire preparedness, the paper should start with how prepared the company is. The writer would then justify its assessment by outlining steps the company has taken given the predicted weather conditions.

Decision papers

With decision papers, you need to identify what decision is required and why, then take a step back and give some brief background. There will always be a background statement because something has happened to necessitate a decision.

You then lead the directors through your argument, making sure you cover links to strategy, risks and financial information. You then just stop – there is no need for a conclusion.

The background would cover the current situation, and then the writer would lead directors through the rationale for the recommendation, looking at strategy, risks and financial information in more detail.

This structure has a traditional storytelling structure except you know the outcome at the beginning in the recommendation and summary.

For example, if a hospital was seeking funding for new equipment, it would need to make a recommendation for $X dollars. The summary might state why the equipment was needed, highlight links to strategy and draw directors’ attention to any potential risks.

Structural principles

In a well-structured paper, directors know immediately what the paper is about and why it matters. It then flows logically from their point of view, anticipating and answering their questions.

Get to the point and contextualise what you are saying

In both noting and decision papers, you must get to the point upfront (answer the ‘what’ question) and contextualise what you are saying (answer the ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions). Directors want to know why they are reading a paper and where it is heading. They don’t want to come across unexpected information half-way through a paper.

In a decision paper, the recommendation is at the beginning, which means that you can’t provide any context before asking for something. If you were communicating in another medium, such as email, you might provide some context before the ‘ask’.

Your summary is the place to briefly provide that context and answer ‘why’ or ‘how’ questions. The most common complaint I hear from senior managers and directors is that the ‘why’ is often not clearly articulated.

In a noting paper, directors need to know what you want to tell them in a nutshell and why they need to know this information. Too often people provide a lot of information, but nothing binds it together – there is no cohesive theme or no overarching main idea. Directors then have to make their own linkages between disparate points to make sense of the information.

Have one overarching idea and two to five supporting ideas

Directors need to remember papers that they’ve read. They need to be able to glance at them again at the board meeting and recall the main ideas instantly.

You can help them remember if your paper has one overarching idea and two to five supporting ideas. When we group information, we not only make it easier for directors to remember, but also make it easier to check for missing information or repetition. Repetitiveness is annoying, but gaps are more concerning.

If you write too many unrelated ideas or points, your readers won’t remember them all.

You can monitor your structure as you are writing if you have Microsoft Styles set and have your navigation pane turned on.

For example:

Noting and decision papers have different structures, but similar structural and coherence principles apply to both:

  • Structural principles
    • Get to the point upfront and contextualise what you’re saying
    • Have one overarching idea and two to five supporting ideas
    • Put your information in the best order for directors
  • Coherence principles
    • Use headings as signposts
    • Group items at every level of your paper
    • Connect paragraphs
    • Connect sentences within paragraphs
    • Use consistent wording

Put your information in the best order for directors

Writing from your readers’ perspective is common sense, but harder to do than it sounds.

The order we think is logical may not work for directors. Planning helps avoid this, but even if you have planned, sometimes we see things more clearly at the end.

This principle applies to all levels of your paper – whole document, paragraphs within each section, and points within lists.

Coherence principles

Use headings as signposts

Headings are useful to guide your reader through your document, but you should be able to read the document without the subheading and it still flows well. Remember, readers don’t all read the same way – some rely on subheadings, but others may skip them.

Effective headings are short and use specific words. The content of a heading should be repeated in the paragraph below to cater for readers who skip the heading.

Make sure your hierarchy of headings and punctuation is consistent. The modern style for headings is sentence case with only the first word and proper nouns having initial capitals.

Group items at every level of your paper

You’ve grouped your main ideas, but you also need to group items at every level of your paper, particularly in bulleted lists. Often writers write long lists that are impossible to read and remember.

In folklore, seven is often regarded as the magic number for chunks of information we can retain in our short-term memory. An influential paper in the 1950s, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, cemented this idea.

However, analysis by Gordon Parker, professor of psychiatry at UNSW, suggests that seven is unrealistic and that the brain can only cope with four chunks of information. Think about how you memorise phone numbers. I bet you don’t remember a group of seven numbers.

You would seldom give more than three options in a board paper. If there is a fourth option, it is often a ‘do-nothing’ option. Given that readers want to know what’s in it for them upfront, put your preferred option first.

Connect paragraphs

If your document is well-structured, the connections between your paragraphs take care of themselves, but sometimes connecting words help the document flow.

You can use the following techniques:

  • Repeat a concept
    Pick up a concept or word from the end of a paragraph and use it at the beginning of the following paragraph. Often when we pick up a concept or word, we change its form as demonstrated in these paragraphs by Ann Handley, chief content officer, MarketingProfs.

‘If you have a website, you are a publisher. If you are on social media, you are in marketing. And that means we are all writers.

Writing matters more now, not less. Our online words are our emissaries: They tell our customers who we are.’

  • Use connecting words
    In informal writing, such as emails, And, Also and But work well to connect paragraphs.

    In more formal writing, we dress up our language a bit, so choose words, such as In addition, However and Therefore. Because these are pompous words, I recommend using them sparingly. For example:

Liquids, Aerosols and Gels (LAGs) restrictions can impact passengers’ purchasing decisions. LAG restrictions vary from country to country. In Australia, under the current LAG regulations, passengers are not permitted to carry on LAG items over 100ml.

‘As a result, passengers transitioning through another airport as part of their journey cannot purchase LAG items such as liquor…

  • Use pronouns
    If you are using a pronoun (It, This) to start a paragraph, it must be very clear what it refers back to. If directors have to backtrack to work out what you’re referring to, they lose the flow. Also, be careful not to overuse this technique.

  • Vary the first words of consecutive paragraphs
    It’s easy to get stuck on using the same word to start several consecutive paragraphs. Sometimes, without realising it, we adopt a favourite starting word. Check the way you are starting paragraphs and see if you’ve fallen into this trap.

Connect sentences within paragraphs

Sentences within paragraphs must also flow well. A common mistake is having several short sentences in a row starting with the same word. The word The is a common culprit.

The standards for water quality are set by government. The standards include acceptable minimum and maximum concentrations of contaminants. The levels are determined by the purpose of the water use.

Standards of water quality, which are set by government, include minimum and maximum acceptable concentrations of contaminants. The levels are determined by the purpose of the water use.

Use consistent wording

Watch for consistency in your word choice for key terms. For example, if you write about ‘sewerage’, and then call it a ‘waste water’, you may confuse people.

In summary:

  • Well-structured and coherent noting papers are easier to read.
  • Well-structured and coherent decision papers are more convincing because the reasoning is clearer.