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Writing a report for the board? Here’s what you need to know
Author : David Cameron
Posted : 29 / 09 / 21
So you’ve been asked to write a board report. How does that make you feel? If the answer is joyful or confident, then this article is probably not for you. If, like the rest of us, it makes you a little anxious and uncertain – read on. We’ve covered the essential information you need to be able to create an effective paper with confidence.
To begin with, let’s establish what we mean by a ‘board report’ – and a board.
Most companies will have a board of directors. This will generally be a mix of senior staff (typically people with ‘director’ in their job title) and external people (usually known as non-executive directors) who are there to bring additional expertise. The board’s job is to take important decisions for your company. So, you might have to write a report to them asking for funding or a change in policy, or to update them on a major project.
In other sectors – voluntary and public – you might have a senior management team whose job it is to make these kinds of decisions. And sometimes a senior management team may themselves report to a board. The corporate governance model can vary widely between organisations and in different countries. But for the purpose of this article, ‘board report’ means any report for the senior team taking strategic decisions.
Chances are that you have a tight deadline to submit your report. You’ll have to write it while doing all the many other things on your list. You’ll probably be tempted to just whip the laptop out and start writing. Resist. When you’re on a tight deadline, it’s even more important to prepare before you write.
What’s it like to be a board member? It might be tempting to think that it’s all high living and luxury. But it isn’t. It’s hard work. Board members have a lot on their plates and a wide range of responsibilities.
Think about how much time your board members have to think about your project. Here’s a hint: it won’t reflect the time you’ve probably put in. You may have been working on it for months. You may have worked weekends and had sleepless nights. But your board members still only have a short amount of time to devote to your work.
I’m going to break your heart now (sorry). The truth is that the board members are not reading your report for pleasure. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important: they are looking to you to give them the information they need to make critical decisions on behalf of your company or organisation. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to do that.
I once trained a group of senior managers at a large NHS Trust. They told me that the board papers for that month alone totalled 1,640 pages. How would you feel about having to read through that lot for one meeting? How much time do you think those board members had to consider each item?
When we train groups to write better board reports, we suggest that they try to put themselves in the position of their board members and see the report from their perspective. But could you go one further? Do you know your board members? Do they know who you are? If not, could you still get access to them for a quick chat or exchange of emails?
There is no doubt that you will write a better report if you have had a briefing from one of the board members on what they want from you. If this is not possible, you should think carefully about what you would want from your report if you were on the board.
Ask yourself some simple questions like:
This will help you to concentrate on the information that is important to them, not necessarily to you.
Here’s an insight direct from a board member that may seem so obvious it’s easy to overlook: you need to say why you’re writing the report at all. ‘It needs to be clear what the purpose of a board paper is,’ Barbara Anderson, a non-executive director and chair on four (yes, four) different boards, says. ‘Whether that’s to inform or – more commonly – to ask for a decision.’ State this purpose up front. It will help your very busy readers to know what they’re doing with the information you’re providing.
And this is not the time to try to impress them with how much you know or prove your worth through sheer quantity of pages. As Barbara puts it:
‘Members of the board know you have worked hard, and they do not need a long paper to prove it. They need the key information, clearly presented, to enable a decision or to form a view. Three pages is likely to be much better than thirty.’
It takes effort and thought to distil all your research and knowledge down to three (concise and highly relevant) pages. But it will be effort well spent – and appreciated.
And don’t feel you need to second-guess all the questions board members might ask and add the answers to your report. If they ask a question, it’s probably because they’re interested and engaged, not because your report has failed.
In my experience, boards are very good at telling you what they don’t want; they can be far less ready to explain clearly what they do want. And if you haven’t been able to pin a member of your board down for a briefing, don’t worry. Experience tells me that, if you want to please the board, this is a good place to start:
In other words, make it easy for them to make the decision you want them to make.
One thing boards don’t want is to receive a pile of reports at the last minute.
So build in the time you need. If any colleagues will be contributing to your report, give them clear deadlines well ahead of your own. Allow a day or two between finishing your draft and sending the final report out, so you can review and edit the content without pressure.
And send the report at least three days before the meeting. Sending it late in the day may mean the board only give it a cursory look and it’s unlikely to encourage them to view your case kindly.
If you’ve been given a template to use, use it. Don’t mess around with it. If there is a word limit for each section, stay well within it. If the template limits the space you have for your text, don’t shrink the font to squeeze it all in. Concentrate on what is important to board members and leave everything else out.
If there is no template, don’t go mad on the formatting front. This is not the time to show off your design skills (unless you work for a graphic design company).
So: use one typeface at 11 or 12-pt and give the text space to ‘breathe’ with decent-sized margins. Use illustrations sparingly and only when they complement or enhance what you are writing. If you use graphs, concentrate on simple trend data that is easy to take in quickly. Add simple, explanatory captions.
And don’t use Word tables in their default design. The latest versions of Word have a table design feature to make tables easier to read and understand (or you can take a look at our video on making tables look good in Word).
Keep your paragraphs to four or five sentences each. That’s unless your board will be reading the papers on electronic devices, in which case make your paragraphs shorter: two to three sentences each.
Produce your report in Microsoft Word or another word processing program: don’t be tempted to use PowerPoint. You may have seen others use it, but it is not designed for producing reports (and it shows).
Writing a paper for the board? Here’s the essential information you need, via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
There isn’t a board out there that want reports written in obscure, complex language. Yet so many of the reports they get are written this way. When you write your report, use simple plain English techniques instead:
Put yourself in your board members’ shoes again. You get the board papers: there’s a report that looks well laid out and another that is messy. Which one do you read first? (Which one do you read at all?)
Don’t underestimate the emotional reaction your reader might have to looking at your report, let alone reading it.
Channel a board member one more time: do they read the four-page report or the 25-page report first? Do they read the 25-page report at all?
Many people over the years have told me earnestly that their work is far too complex to explain in a short report. In these moments, I like to remind them that some of the greatest innovators and business communicators of our times (think Branson or Jobs) never needed thousands of words to make a huge impact. Neither do you.
The board want you help them make the decision you’re asking them to make. But you need to remove the friction from the process. Put your main point at the beginning, make it clear the choice you want them to make and follow it with your reasoning.
Your board is made up of your company’s most influential and important people. Writing a poor report for them will affect your reputation with those you most need to impress.
And don’t forget your reputation with your colleagues, particularly the ones that service the board by collecting the papers. If you’re always late or always need chasing for your report, you can be sure that will get back to the board.
Consistently writing poor board reports will also get you a reputation that you do not want. On the other hand, write consistently good ones and your reputation will be enhanced.
So you can impress board members with your board reports – just not by showing off your knowledge and jargon or trying to prove over many pages how hard you’ve worked. You can do it with brevity and clarity. You can do it by making it easy for them to make the decisions they need to make.
Image credit: UfaBizPhoto / Shutterstock
David wrote his first organisational policy more than 25 years ago and wishes he’d known then what he knows now about creating them. After over 25 years working in the communications departments of international charities and large organisations, he now trains and develops learning programmes for Emphasis.
He has written for and worked with organisations including Amnesty International, the National Trust and the NHS, creating and implementing style and tone-of-voice guides, and developing and delivering business-writing training.
These years of experience have given David an understanding of the key role an organisation's culture plays in developing its people – and their business-writing skills.
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