In a recent webinar on writing effective board papers, Josh Dowse from Clarity Thought Partners and Head of ESG and Sustainability at SenateSHJ, outlined the six fundamental stages of creating and delivering effective board papers. Here are some key discussions from this webinar to assist you with the preparation of your board papers.
Writing effective (and welcome) board papers is a challenge. Breaking it down into these six steps is the key to clarity and getting the result you want.
If an organisation wants or needs change, it needs to propose that change to the board. Not all board papers have the intended result. But there’s a clear path to getting as close as possible to what you want to achieve.
Proposals that work have clear messaging: They start with a storyline that reaches the board in the right way. Coupled with an effective storyline, a strong board paper prompts the organisation to action, enabling change and real growth.
The six steps to creating and delivering board papers that do their job
Creating and delivering better board papers is a general skill that spans multiple roles and positions within organisations. At its foundation, a paper outlines a proposition or conveys information to get the answer you need. But the actual writing of the paper comes much later than it first might appear. There’s a lot of groundwork to do before the drafting phase.
The storyline stage takes up a lot of time and focus — about half of the process — but makes the actual drafting significantly easier. It’s also important to choose the right “time envelope” for when and how the storyline should take shape. In the old model, research and analysis took up about 80% of the time, with 10% spent on key messages and another 10% spent drafting the paper itself. This is an outmoded model. A more effective, dynamic approach encourages a living storyline from the get-go, with research and analysis tapering off as the paper is written (about halfway through the allotted time for the project). A complete draft storyline should be drafted by this point too.
A lot of effort goes into the very first part of the storyline phase and the first stage of the process overall — which is commissioning the paper. The commission is an agreement with the board, the committee, upper management or another sponsor on what they want and need. Clarity is everything, which helps to avoid drafting far off track.
It’s crucial to tap into ties — enlisting support from those with interest in the work being done — to identify the audience of the paper. It generally won’t be the full board, but the key decision-maker(s) instead.
Establish purpose, which is not, counterintuitively, about sharing updates or reports. Purpose is actually about why you’re doing it. What do you want the target audience to think and do? It’s about instilling confidence in this purpose and encouraging the audience to either take action or rest assured that a managed project is all in hand.
1. Diverse audiences
Many papers outline the objective benefits of going ahead with a seemingly sensible project. But if the audience doesn’t feel reassured by a direct address of their personal concerns, they won’t act. And there will always be a person (and accompanying concern) with the most influence. For a diverse audience, focus on that person (while tailoring slightly for the rest).
2. Diverse issues
Tackling multiple issues depends on how closely they’re interrelated. Two independent issues require two separate papers, as they’re two items on the agenda. Marrying the two will confuse the audience. But if the issues are clearly connected, like hiring someone for a role that doesn’t exist but is being considered, they should be addressed in the same paper.
When the audience has what they need from you, you have the paper’s content. Then you can focus on how to plan and deliver that content in the best possible way.
A storyline is a structured outline of your agreed-upon content presented on a single page. It’s a simple pyramid structure and — true of all communication — an introduction presents the reader with a pertinent question.
The main point of the paper is to clearly answer this question by breaking it down in detail and backing up your arguments with evidence. It should be relevant, keeping people listening and reading. Forget about the B-word (background). Effective papers do three things at the storyline stage:
1. Context statement:
This single statement (re)connects audiences to the topic at hand. It’s usually an issue discussed at the last board meeting — a business acquisition or classroom investment at a school, for example.
The trigger is simply why the topic is being discussed — rapid business expansion, or because the school capital assets team engaged an architect to establish how new classrooms should look.
The question is clear and straightforward: Will the organisation acquire this business? What’s the best new room for the school? And so is the answer. Whether they’re delivered verbally or in written form, they form the basis of a winning storyline.
The right storyline facilitates the first testing stage. You test this storyline with the right people — the target audience or your board support — in order to hit the mark with drafting (the next stage). Top-level logic allows for a clear decision on the best course of action. It should be deliverable in 20 to 30 seconds.
Testing the one-page storyline with sponsors or key board members at this stage prevents you from having to complete an entire draft before eliciting feedback (and deal with potential revisions down the line). When you’re confident you’re on the right track, you can begin the drafting phase, which is broken into writing and a second testing phase prior to delivery.
The storyline is clear and it’s time to write the paper. Starting with a document outline and headlines allows for fleshing out the storyline and evidence-gathering while it’s being written. The story might change and adapt. Rigorous drafting with specific sections and formats is the orthodox way across many boards — but rarely can anyone explain why (the default line is that it’s always been done that way). Considered storylines tackle these “core sections,” potential risks and financial implications by default.
Know the structure you use to organise your paper. It’s hard to write well, but you need strong, active, short sentences. Do this, and irrelevant information disappears automatically.
Relying on the storyline to write the whole paper is a powerful method. It creates an action-oriented environment where real change happens. A proper introduction with transparent support clearly drives everyone towards a common place.
Testing the written draft is a crucial pre-circulation, pre-delivery phase. If the first test was for the storyline, the second is for constructive feedback on the paper itself, especially on specific content.
Draft testing involves drilling down on overall logic, adequately addressing board member concerns, and even layout and format — some board members see a paper’s rigour as a hallmark of its author’s own rigour.
Delivery is composed of four self-explanatory steps: circulation, presentation, discussion and follow-up.
The challenge is dealing with the various people who will read the paper: While some may be action-oriented, others may want to focus on detail.
Circulating the paper ahead of the presentation avoids over-focusing on issues irrelevant to the target audience. Then, instead of presenters challenging raised concerns head-on, the chair moderates the dialogue and keeps the presentation on track. A structured agenda agreed upon in advance breeds effective, relevant discussion.
Meanwhile, a clear storyline hits big-picture thinkers in the right way. Everything in the paper is strategically placed to make the most impact. Because the story evolves with the research instead of after it, this process is much easier.
Why board papers that follow these steps make a real impact
Effective board papers focus on a specific audience and their needs and personal concerns. If they clearly appear in the paper, it will hit the mark. It’s important to question the traditional structures, templates and formats of certain sections because they often disguise a story’s strength. It may be possible to change the document template to break through restraints. If not, there is usually a section that outlines the complete story.
It’s imperative to state the overall argument. This is easy to do with these six steps — even when confined by a pre-existing format. Everything else will fall into place thereafter.
A clear, effective and welcome board paper writing process is easier to establish than it looks. And it makes the board’s process a lot easier too. This gets organisations closer to the desired outcome and marks real growth.
This article was based on a webinar with Josh Dowse from Clarity Thought Partners. Find out more about his webinar here. This article is general in nature and does not constitute professional advice. Better Boards recommends that the reader contact Josh Dowse directly for more information, or seek their own professional guidance in relation to their own circumstances.
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