The importance of clear titles in board papers

By Mary Morel | 7 April 2015

Importance of clear titles in board papers

Directors like clear titles to board papers because they want to know what the paper is about before they start reading. And the title of a paper must be identical in the agenda.

When the title in the agenda is different, directors are unsure which is the correct title or even if the paper is the correct one. If the titles are different, it’s usually because the title has changed during the reviewing process and no one has thought to amend the agenda.

Now this might sound picky and a minor detail, but the title of a paper aids readability. This principle has been well-known for decades. In the early 1970s, psychologists John Bransford and Marcia Johnson conducted a number of experiments on comprehension. Their work is still being quoted and came to my attention in Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.

In one experiment the participants were asked to read the passage below and then asked to recall it as accurately as possible.

‘The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.’ (Bransford and Johnson 1972 p722)

One group was just given the passage and needless to say it made little sense. A second group was told before reading the passage that it was about washing clothes and that group understood it. A third group was told the topic after reading the passage. That didn’t help much. I guess they didn’t want to re-read it.

Of course, in a well-written board paper using a modern template with an overview upfront, a poor title will not cause complete incomprehension of the paper. But why not treat your title seriously so it does some of your key messaging for you and engages directors’ attention immediately?