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Top ten tips for better board papers

The quality of board papers can have a strong influence on the efficiency and effectiveness of the board. This primer provides guidance for those preparing board papers.

By Institute of Directors
16 Jun 2018

The impact of board papers on meetings and decision making is often overlooked. A focused agenda is the framework for a focused meeting.

Board papers are typically assembled by the CEO in close consultation with the chair. The chair is the official ‘owner’ of the board agenda and should oversee its preparation.

The quality of board papers is enhanced by a dynamic of trust and confidence between the chair and CEO. A chair should expect that the CEO will identify and prioritise the right topics for the board. Both parties should maintain a dialogue about the board papers including feedback on areas that need improvement and those that work well.

Further support information on board papers can be found in the IoD’s The Four Pillars of Governance Best Practice, section 3.10.

Tip 1 - Tone: Write for your reader

Tone is number one for a reason. Put simply, tone involves asking some basic questions:

  • Why am I writing this?
  • Who am I writing it for?
  • What do I want the readers know, consider or understand?

Many experienced writers fail to write with a focus on the governance matters the board is there to deal with. Your director audience is looking for accessible and relevant information. Asking the questions above can help in planning your paper. You should also be clear what you want your reader to do – is this paper ‘for information’, ‘for decision’ or some other action?

Does your report pass the tone test?

Tip 2 - What does your reader know?

Remember that a non-executive director might attend a handful of meetings per year. Therefore, the context and background to the paper is important. Include ‘reminder’ detail as appropriate. Avoid the risk of assuming the reader knows what you know.

Does your report pass the reader test?

Tip 3 - It’s not a duplicate management report

It’s an error to simply duplicate management reports for the board without assessing them for relevance. Generally, directors don’t need basic detail about the day-to-day running of the organisation. It’s worth looking twice at content that won’t help the board make their decisions.

There’s no strict rule about what is ‘in or out’ because the line between operational and strategic decision making can vary. The principle here is that governance and management often need different data to do their job with excellence. 

Is your report written for the board or a duplicate of what your managers see?

Tip 4 - ‘Weed the garden’: What information really needs to be included for the board?

A succinct, concise paper with plenty of thought in preparation is a winning paper. Don’t be afraid to cut out unnecessary operational detail if the paper calls for a strategic decision. Avoid the temptation to think more always means better. Boards usually have limited time to discuss your paper so getting to the key issues is important. Make it clear that further supporting information is available if appropriate. If a director wants greater detail, he or she will seek it out.

Have you weeded the information during the editing phase?

Tip 5 - Persuasive statements should be backed with evidence

Writers often make a point they understand intimately but forget to provide evidence. For example, “…The project is important for organisation efficiency.”

To the writer, this is a given. The reader needs to know why. So link it together: 

“…The project is important for organisation efficiency. It will reduce double-handling of customers.

To assume the board remembers every detail of previous discussions is not a winning formula. Boards also need to know where data in a paper came from to assess it for its merits. There’s no harm in reminding the board of its own views and decisions in in the past. For example: “The board previously took a view there was merit in the project. (Minutes of July 2012 Board meeting)"

Have you backed your argument with evidence and ensured the paper is properly referenced?

Tip 6 - Align content to strategy as appropriate

The board considers strategy and risk. It uses the approved strategic plan and goals to frame its thinking. It is therefore useful to point out where a proposal or project aligns with the strategic intent of the board. For example:

“…Approval of a new employee performance system is a step forward for the company by increasing the monitoring capability. This aligns with the strategic goal for 2012 that we improve our monitoring of staff training and performance.

Remember references to current strategy in board papers.

Tip 7 - Structure

Like any reader, your director audience is looking for a user friendly structure. Write with an emphasis on order of priority. Cue the reader with words like ‘priority,’ ‘primary’ or ‘important’ to demonstrate the relative value of the point.

Where possible, try using graphic and tabular material for easy reference. Dashboard reporting can distil complex information into accessible. The appendix can be used to park relevant but low priority reference detail. Bullet points can truncate sentences.

But don’t overdo it.

Is your report the optimal structure for easy navigation and readability?

Tip 8 - Simplify and justify

Keep it concise, accurate and relevant.

Writing factually and objectively can be a real challenge when you are close to the subject matter. But doing so will give the board a more balanced viewpoint from which to consider your points.

Are you keeping it simple and proving your point?

Tip 9 - Edit, edit and edit again

There’s real value in revisiting your paper with a critical eye. Sometimes a paper left for 24 hours takes on a whole new complexion.

Are you editing for precision?

Tip 10 - Value peer review and re-drafting opportunities

Peer review and commentary is a valuable feedback loop, especially if it is a large paper. A new pair of eyes reads to comprehend (and not justify) what has been written. Peers and editors can make major contributions by offering ways to drive more sense from a sentence.

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