Issues arising from ineffective board papers are one of the biggest sources of conflict between boards and management teams. The management feel like they can’t figure out what the board really wants, while boards get frustrated when they can’t get the information they need. Condensing and clarifying board papers is a key step to remember when writing them, and it’ll go a long way to keeping everybody in your organisation happy. Here are some tips on how to do exactly that.

The 17th-century bishop John Hall once said “Perfection is the child of time”, and he couldn’t have been more right. Writing these documents will take quite some time - and then re-writing them for brevity will take even longer. Give yourself plenty of space to work on your board papers, and use all of it. Also, you’re never going to get it exactly right on your first try - liaise with the people reading the papers and find out what you can improve on for next time. Your final goal should be a document that clearly states what it’s about, is typically three pages or less, and effectively communicates well-researched recommendations. A short, comprehensive paper gives the board confidence in the management team’s ability to apply clear thinking and effective research techniques.

If your paper covers a lot of information and you just can’t squeeze it down to three pages, there are a few things you can do to streamline it. The first is to turn information into diagrams. If you can take a couple of paragraphs and condense them into a bar graph that you can put in an appendix, it will make your paper a lot more readable. Most spreadsheeting software will have functions for making exactly the graphs you need. But! Don’t get carried away with this - if you include a book’s worth of diagrams and attachments without any kind of guidance on the significance or impact of each of them, your reader will be left confused and annoyed.

Another form of information condensing can happen in the way you deliver your paper. If there is a ton of detailed background material and research taking up space in your papers, you can instead write two sets of papers. Ok, I know that sounds like a lot more work, but hear me out. Write one set with all the detail, background, and research laid out clearly without any of your own input beyond quick explanations on why each report is included. Then, write a second paper where instead of outlining the background material in-depth, you give a quick summary of the key points and a link (or just a mention, if delivered physically) to the more detailed report for those who want to read further.

The last thing to do before delivering board papers is to give them a thorough re-read. Try to put yourself in the mindset of a board member when doing this. Is the communication clear and comprehensive? Can the use of diagrams or other techniques help make the paper more effective? Are any recommendations backed up with solid research? Think about what was asked for and what was delivered. Do they match up?

It’s ok to check with others in your organisation to make sure you’re on the right track. If you’re ever feeling lost, just ask a colleague - or even the board member who tasked you with writing these papers. It’s not easy work, but clear thoughts and brevity will make it simpler.