Style Matters: Writing Effective Board Papers

Alan Hewitt  |  July 18, 2019

In this article, I’d like to take a look at the many documents that we have to read online – be it on a laptop, tablet, or phone – in preparation for a board meeting. Many people still tend to print out documents on paper to read them because it’s easier to skim through in that format. Do we do that because the documents that we receive aren’t written with the reader in mind or the medium on which they will be read? Throughout my working life, I have been involved in writing many proposals which, almost without exception, started with an Executive Summary before delving into details at length. The Executive Summary captured the essence of the proposal by pointing out major points.

Style-Matters-Writing-Effective-Board-Papers


So if we focus on board briefing paper/documents, why don’t we create them using a similar approach? I did a little online research and came across a method called the
“Inverted Pyramid” (A fuller description is given here.) I will leave you to read the full article but have extracted one section: 

The inverted pyramid is perfectly suited for the web - on any screen size. We know that users don’t read carefully online. They have little patience for content that doesn’t engage them. Users scroll, but only when they think that the content they want or need will appear on that page. The Inverted Pyramid style addresses all of these aspects of user behaviour.

Using the Inverted Pyramid style can:

  • Improve comprehension: Users can quickly form a mental model and a general understanding of the article, making it easier to understand the details that follow.
  • Decrease interaction cost: Users can understand the main point of the page without having to spend a lot of time reading.
  • Encourage scrolling: This structure can encourage scrolling by engaging the audience with the main point and drawing them into the details that follow.
  • Structure content logically: Starting with broad information sets the stage for what follows. Elements like anchor or jump links can become unnecessary when content is structured to draw the user down the page.
  • Support readers who skim: Readers can stop reading at any point on the page and still come away with the main point.”

Doesn’t this perfectly capture what we need to be doing with board documents? What’s important, in my opinion, is not that all board meeting participants read every document front to back, but that they have the relevant information to make informed and constructive contributions to the meeting.

This article on using the Inverted Pyramid for business writing gives us more encouragement to adopt this or a similar approach.

It might be time that we put more effort into structuring our board packs with the mobile worker in mind so that board members attend meetings properly briefed and informed rather than trying to skim read documents during the meeting.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line for writing an effective board paper is to think like a Director. As the author, you need to put yourself in the shoes of a Director and ask what you would want in a board paper to aid your decision making? Most Directors are busy people. Although many will require attachments that will allow them to drill into the details, Directors generally prefer board packs to be clear, concise and easy to read.

It is the duty of Directors to act in the best interest of the organisation and, in most cases, they will be looking for a low-risk approach to their decision making. Accordingly, board proposals and reports often need be laid out in a manner that is incremental, planned, rational, and with key deliverables or milestones defined.

As Mark Twain once famously said, “I apologize for such a long letter – I didn't have time to write a short one.” Writing in the Inverted Pyramid style may take a little longer but the benefits of a well informed and contributing board are worth the effort. Or at least I believe so.

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think.

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Alan Hewitt

Alan Hewitt

Alan is a Non-executive Director at Praxonomy. Alan has worked in IT Services and Consulting for nearly 40 years including 30 years at IBM, where he was an Executive Partner in IBM’s Global Consulting Business responsible for the development of the Workforce Transformation Practice. Since leaving IBM in 2010, he has worked as an independent Business Consultant working for major companies across industries and the world. Alan is a Fellow of both the IET and BCS.

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