How to know if your communication is quality

How to know if your communication is quality

Do you ever wonder if your papers and presentations hit the mark, or if your stakeholders are just being nice?

Today one of my clients laughed and said that at the end of our program, he now has a very different view of what good looks like.

After learning new strategies for clarifying the desired outcome for his communication and then how to structure a message that achieves that outcome, he sees the world differently.

So, I thought I'd share with you the top five questions that he and his colleagues now ask when reviewing their papers and presentations. Does the communication ….

S – Set the scene quickly by drawing the audience toward one insightful message?
C – Convey the right balance of strategic and operational detail?
O – Organise the ideas in a well-structured hierarchy?
R – Ready the audience for a productive discussion?
E – Engage the audience using a medium, style and tone that suits them?

This is one of the frameworks we'll focus on in my upcoming Board Paper Bootcamp programs.

I will host one for the European and American time zones during October and another for Australian and American time zones in March.

>> Learn more here.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PS – You can learn more about this framework inside the Clarity Hub too.

Who to collaborate with on important paper?

Who to collaborate with on important paper?

When people learn to prepare papers and presentations for senior audiences they often focus on improving ‘writing' and ‘slide making' skills.

These are useful and often taught as though the paper or presentation is prepared by one individual.

However, in my experience this is often not the case.

Engaging senior audiences to make a recommendation or to update is a collaborative effort.

So, how to collaborate?

The first step is to decide who you should involve in the process, particularly at the initial scoping session.

I recommend inviting everyone who will have a role in preparing the paper, including more junior team members who may only focus on discrete sections.

You may also think a bit expansively to include people with these three Es:

  • Expertise: Are they familiar with the problem or have a usefully different perspective? Most likely they will have been involved in working on the issue, but it may be useful to think more broadly for higher stakes communication.
  • Evaluative ability: Do they think deeply about things, and are they a smart thinker? Sometimes it helps to have people outside of the context who bring raw intelligence to the effort. Involving them may be a useful way to help them learn more about the issue while also contributing to the communication.
  • Elevation: Do they have sufficient visibility of the strategic environment to help link your narrative to the broader business objectives? You may bring sufficient visibility on your own, or equally, you may bring someone senior into the session to share their perspective. It could be the person who commissioned the paper, someone who owns the relevant strategy or someone who knows the stakeholder group well.

In briefing the whole team, you will increase the chances of clarifying a message that hits the right notes with less effort from you all.

I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina

 

PS – We will go into this and much more in my upcoming Board Paper Bootcamp. Learn more here.

 

Can AI write your papers?

Can AI write your papers?

There is much talk about how artificial intelligence (AI) can write for us.

Nikki Gemmell wrote in The Australian newspaper that ‘We scribblers and hacks are staring at the abyss in terms of the chatbot future roaring at us’.

Professional copywriter Leanne Shelton lamented its impact on her business. She expects her copywriting business to take a 35 percent hit this year thanks to OpenAI releasing ChatGPT last November.

I am seeing clients experiment with a range of AI tools to help with their work too.

Yet, like Nikki Gemmel, I am not concerned about AI taking my job.

AI can help the writing process and will stretch us to think harder and better but is not (yet, at least) a match for human insight.

Let me explain why.

  1. AI can’t make a judgement call
  2. AI relies on humans asking really good questions
  3. AI can’t explain how it arrived at its answer
  4. AI’s writing ability is surprisingly poor
  5. AI is inherently biased

Let me unpack each of these further.

 

AI can’t make a judgement call

Even when organisations (eventually) set up their private AI instance AI can only offer limited help. This is so even after proprietary data is fed into it and appropriate access permissions are set up. 

Let’s imagine that we feed the past decade’s board and senior leadership team papers into a proprietary database. We then add an AI engine on top. Leaders and board members could enter queries such as: ‘What is our company’s data security strategy’. The AI engine would then ‘read’ all of its material and summarise it to explain what the papers say about our company’s data security strategy. That is useful as far as it goes.

But what if we asked it: ‘How could we improve our data security strategy?’. Again it would summarise what the papers in its database say about the potential risks inherent in our current strategies. Again, useful as far as it goes.

Assuming the information in the papers is both accurate and complete, the summary may be helpful. I also assume, but don’t know, if it would place the strategy at a point in time or give all the information equal weighting. For example, a five year old data security strategy would be out of date. Would it qualify the information from that strategy as being from five years ago, or merge it with all the other data security items? Would it give these equal weighting? I am not sure, but for this kind of information to be useful we would need to know.

The limitations become even more obvious when we ask the question that we really need an answer to. What would it say if we asked it: ‘What is the right data security strategy for our company in today’s context?’

This is where the human comes in. Opining on what the ‘right strategy’ for a specific company is relies on judgement. So far at least, AI doesn’t have the ability to make a judgement call.

 

AI relies on humans asking really good questions

AI can only answer the questions we ask using the data it has access to. If we ask the wrong question, we will get the wrong answer.

In my experience, asking the right question is a major part of the challenge. 

So even accounting for all of our limitations, humans are at an advantage here. We can interpret the questions we are asked, which can be very useful.

If I ask my team to answer a specific question, and they realise I am off base, they can answer the question I asked but also provide me with what I really need.

They can do this because they understand the context in which I operate, which an AI tool does not.

 

AI can’t explain how it arrived at it answer

While it is fun to ask these bots all sorts of questions to see how they answer, they can’t explain their reasoning. This matters if, for example, we need to audit something.

Imagine if you reported to a regulator that customer complaints for a product like a credit card fell by 20 percent during 2023. The regulator will ask you to provide your evidence to have confidence that this is true.

In the current world you can unpack the data feed. You can explain where the data was collected and when, how it fed into a dashboard that generated the result.   

AI doesn’t allow you to do this, it just asserts what it found using its own hidden processes.

 

AI’s writing ability is surprisingly poor

I put this to the test recently in a conversation with a client. Brooke had been playing with ChatGPT to see if it could help her write a risk memo on non-lending risk acceptance in digital processes.

The result was both unhelpful and hard to read. It identified that operational, cyber and compliance risk needed to be considered. While the information was true, Brooke already knew this and the output lacked context.

As a test, we put the response through my favourite writing tool, the Hemingway Editor. This involved copy-pasting the text from ChatGPT into Hemingway, which then evaluated the writing quality.

It assessed the quality was poor and gave a reading age of Grade 14.  That means it was written at university level. It classified 13 out of the 20 sentences as very hard to read.

You might not think is a problem given many people reading risk reports are university graduates.  It is, however, well above the grade 8 that I recommend for my clients to ensure fast and easy reading for busy executives. In contrast, this article scores at Grade 7.

We then asked it to improve the language of its original draft and re-tested with Hemingway. The new draft came in with a reading age of Grade 9, which was a significant improvement if we can ignore that the content was unhelpful.

I have repeated the test and had similar results.

 

AI is inherently biased

This is where the discussion gets really interesting. I have asked Chat GPT and Google’s equivalent, Bard, to provide me with information about topics that interest me.

I find it is useful when asking for facts. For example, which podcasts discuss board paper writing, or perhaps what art schools offer weekend life drawing classes in my city. The tool provides a tidy summary that is easier than hunting through links provided by Google or Bing.

I worry about its responses that include opinion, however. I had some fun and asked some personal questions to see what it would do.

For example: ‘How does the moon affect women’s health?’. Chat GPT claims the moon doesn’t affect women’s health. In contrast Bard described this as a contested area and offered a list of areas that are currently being researched. In this instance, the Bard answer was more accurate and more helpful.

In contrast, when asking about sensitive topics the answers were both contradictory and troubling. Both Bard and ChatGPT have strong views about topics such climate change and the move to electric vehicles among other things.

Both began by explaining that they were AI tools that could not offer opinion before doing just that.

Given AI is a tool coded by humans, those humans influence how it works and the results it gives. We need to be very aware of this and evaluate any results we receive accordingly.

My conclusion is that although AI is a fun tool to play with and can be useful for finding information, it needs to be used with care. It won’t replace human judgement any time soon. It will, however, push us to get better. We need to critically evaluate anything it ‘spits out’ and lift our own game so we are adding real value not just regurgitating facts.

 I hope that helps.

Cheers, 

Davina

Is your communication insightful?

Is your communication insightful?

Last week I introduced the most important metric for evaluating whether communication is of a high standard or not.  It’s not what you think.

If you haven’t read it yet, go here.

Today I move onto sharing my second ingredient for quality communication: quality of insight.

Let me ask: Do your papers deliver significant value to your project, team or organisation? Do they connect some dots to offer a new idea that adds value to the strategy, returns, processes or perhaps by reducing risk?

This relates to synthesis, which is where both the challenge and opportunity lie when improving high-stakes communication.

In his 2005 book A Whole New Mind best-selling author Daniel Pink commented synthesis as the ‘killer app’ in business in what he calls the new Conceptual Age.

 

“What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture and crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole”.

 

Or more simply, the formula we used at McKinsey is that synthesis is summary + insight.

SYNTHESIS = SUMMARY + INSIGHT

Without wanting to be too pointy about it, Daniel Pink was right. Most people can summarise. So can natural language processing tools such as ChatGPT, if given the right data set.

The real value we humans bring is to connect that factual summary with our own insights stemming from our understanding of the context.

So, to offer high-quality, valuable insights, you need to be technically strong and in touch with commercial and stakeholder imperatives.

This means that you and your leaders need to work together. You need a common strategy for tying together complex ideas to make them seem simple.

You need a structured way to collaborate when synthesising your message.

So, ask yourself about the consequences of delivering poor-quality insights. How well thought through are the ideas your team shares with you?

When it works, individuals and teams get the balance right between the import of the message, the value it delivers and the time they invest to prepare it.

And, as I mentioned last week, they do it with minimal rework.

This brings me to my third ingredient, velocity, which I’ll talk about next week.

Cheers,

Davina

 

 

RELATED POSTS

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

The most important measure of communication quality

The most important measure of communication quality

 

When trying to work out if your communication is any good or not, do you wonder what is the most important measure of success?

I have an unusual take on it.

When it comes to important papers, my hunch is that the single most important needle to move is the amount of time you and your colleagues spend reworking them.

If there is little rework, then they are fit for purpose. If there is much, it’s not a good sign for anyone.

That single measure may be enough. You may, however, like to dig a little deeper.

This week I’d like to offer the first of three measures you can use. Let me give you a preview and then dive into today’s topic: Clarity.

  1. Clarity – Can you glean the core messages within 30 seconds of opening a paper or presentation?
  2. Quality – How valuable are the insights?
  3. Velocity – How quickly can your team develop and deliver powerful insights that lead to better decisions?

Let me now dig into the first of these. Can you glean the core messages within 30 seconds of opening a paper or presentation?

This is where we ask whether the communication misses the mark. Are you  

  • Writing Agatha Christie reports that leave the big idea until the end
  • Asking your decision makers to conduct Easter Egg Hunts to find the insights or
  • Delivering papers that are either wafer thin or worse. They miss the point altogether.

We ask how well the messages jump off the page (or out of the mouth) so that your audience can grasp them quickly. How easy are they to find in the paper, presentation, discussion, email or other communication form?

Clarity helps us quickly see what the message is and check whether it does what is needed.

As one board director suggested recently, she would rather read papers that did not require him to conduct an Easter egg hunt. She does not enjoy hunting around ‘the garden’ of the paper to find where the insights are hidden.

She wants them to pop off the page so she can quickly skim the paper to decide how to read it.

Try asking how often a reader can glean the message within 30 seconds of opening the paper. You can also apply this to emails and other communication too.

While clarity is critical, though, it’s not enough. To quote one of my ‘crustier’ clients, the head of credit risk at a large bank:

“The team can now craft much clearer messages, which is very useful. But how do we stop them putting ‘rubbish’ in the boxes?”.

This leads me to my next dimension: quality of insight, which I’ll dive into next week.

Cheers, 

Davina

 

RELATED POSTS

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

Want a 25+% cut in the time it takes to prepare major papers?

Want a 25+% cut in the time it takes to prepare major papers?

Want to cut the number of times your manager reviews your papers by 25+ percent?  

Even better, cut the amount of time it takes you to draft and then edit your papers by a similar amount? 

I hear both executives and their managers complain that they spend too much time on papers. 

Here is an image demonstrating how this works.

Executives complain they don’t get great briefings, and so struggle to know what they need to communicate about. 

They then throw everything at the paper so nothing is left out before sending to their manager for review. 

Their manager takes one look and parks it for later. The paper looks heavy and they need to block some proper thinking time to review it. 

I think you know what happens then? 

The clock ticks and the paper sits in their inbox until really close to the due date. 

And then, late at night or on the weekend, your manager opens it and starts work. 

The only way they can get a handle on the material is to start with the things they can see: the minutiae. They fix typos, details and grammaticals as a way to work into the substance. 

By the time they have done this, the whole thing has been reworked. 

However, there is a way out of this. 

My clients regularly cut the amount of time they spend preparing and reviewing papers by 25 percent or more. 

Join the Clarity First Intensive this coming February to learn now. 

>> Learn more here 

Warm regards, 

Davina 

RELATED POSTS

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

Why too much background is a problem

Why too much background is a problem

A Board Director recently described his problem with Board papers to a colleague of mine.

He said: “He disliked feeling as though he was conducting an Easter Egg hunt when reading Board Papers.

“He would much prefer spending his energy evaluating the ideas in the paper than trying to find them.”

One of the main reasons this happens is that background sections are too long. Many paper-writers often feel the need to deliver lots of history, definitions and detail at the start of the paper.

The idea is that doing this helps the audience understand what the paper is about so they can understand the punch line.

Unfortunately, it has the reverse effect, switching most audiences off.

This is one of the key reasons why I encourage you to keep your context and trigger short, to no more than 15 percent of the length of the whole paper. Here are some thoughts to help you achieve that.

  1. Include definitions in an appendix. You can refer to it the first time you mention a technical term that you think some readers may not be familiar with. If it is a completely foreign idea to all, then define it at the point of reference, perhaps as a footnote.
  2. Use the context to introduce the topic under discussion only. You might, for example, think back to the last time you discussed the relevant topic with your audience and remind them of that.
  3. Weave history and detail into the story itself. This way you present ideas as they are relevant to the audience rather than out of context.

I hope that helps. More next week.

Davina

 

RELATED POSTS

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

Is your paper really for ‘noting’?

Is your paper really for ‘noting’?

I had a terrific question from a client today that highlighted a common strategic challenge.

How do we use a storyline to create a ‘paper for noting’?

These are papers that aren't asking for a decision but truly updating our audience on a topic. For example, they might do one of these things:

  • confirm that something has been done
  • explain that something is ‘on track'


In this situation Adrian was concerned that he didn’t have a ‘so what’ (which is a tale for another day … what really IS a so what after all?).

Rather, he wanted his Board to be aware of a problem so they were ready to hear about his business case in a couple of months’ time.

So, what to do?

In this case Adrian decided to ask the Board to endorse his plan to prepare a business case to address the problem he was facing.

This strategy alerted the Board to the existence of the problem, demonstrated early that the team was taking action and provided clarity around the near-term steps the team would take to address it.

I hope that’s useful and look forward to sending more ideas through next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

Learn how to communicate complex ideas that cut through using our practical book. We share our seven favourite storyline patterns while also discussing two practical scenarios for each: one operational, one strategic.

Never be asked “So, what does that mean?” again.
Click here to learn more.

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

How to discuss risks with decision makers?

How to discuss risks with decision makers?

When talking about the risks in a recent Board paper with two SLT members, one of them said something very interesting.

The risks section SHOULD make us feel uncomfortable.

The CTO's view was that if we highlight the things that are keeping us up at night and can demonstrate how well we have thought them through they will trust us more.

I found this interesting as I at times see risks being discussed in a ‘tick a box' fashion or alternatively being played down to reduce political rather than practical risk.

Given his view was so clear and strong vs what I so often see, I wanted to unpack his reasoning to help you too …

If we do share what keeps us up at night three things will happen. We

  • can be confident that the leadership will trust us
  • will enjoy a much more robust discussion that leads to a better outcome for the business
  • might just sleep better

If, alternatively, we are ‘gilding the lily' by only discussing the positives, leaders won’t trust us – and neither they should.

In his words: if we play it safe we would let both them and ourselves down as it demonstrates that we

  • haven't thought our proposition through deeply enough to be taken seriously
  • aren't ready to handle the inevitable risks we will face in delivering on our commitments
  • lack the courage to lead

This was food for thought to me and will push me to focus more intently on how risks are articulated in communication I help my clients prepare.

What about you?

How openly do you discuss the risks as you see them when lying awake at night?

I hope that helps. More next week.

Kind regards,
Davina

PRESENTED BY DAVINA STANLEY

I love what I do.

I help senior leaders and their teams prepare high-quality papers and presentations in a fraction of the time.

This involves 'nailing' the message that will quickly engage decision makers in the required outcome.

I leverage 25+ years' experience including

  • learning structured thinking techniques at McKinsey in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s before coaching and training their teams globally as a freelancer for a further 15 years
  • being approved to teach the Pyramid Principle by Barbara Minto in 2009
  • helping CEOs, C-suite leaders and their reports deeply understand their stakeholder needs and communicate accordingly
  • seeing leaders cut the number of times they review major papers by ~30% and teams cut the amount of time they take to prepare major papers by ~20%*
  • watching senior meetings focus on substantive discussions and better decisions rather than trying to clarify the issue

My approach helps anyone who needs to engage senior leaders and Boards.

Recent clients include 7Eleven, KPMG, Mercer, Meta, Woolworths.

Learn more at www.clarityfirstprogram.com

 

(*) Numbers are based on 2023 client benchmarking results.

Transitioning Board Papers onto tablets is trickier than it seems

Transitioning Board Papers onto tablets is trickier than it seems

Many companies are moving away from physical paper for board papers in favour of tablets.

Directors seem generally grateful not to take phone-book sized packs away for their weekend reading and all would agree that less paper is usually better. However, transitioning to tablets is more complex than it seems.

Today's ‘Tips & techniques for board writing on iPads & tablets' session presented by Mary Morel of Write to Govern and hosted by the Governance Institute of Australia highlighted that point.

In coming away from that session, I realised that coming to grips with the technology is not as easy as it seems, macro structure matters most of all, visual presentation matters more than in the past and micro issues matter more than you might think. Here is some more on each of these points:

Coming to grips with the technology is not as easy as it seems

  • Directors often use different devices for different boards to accommodate each company's policy and platform, which adds unexpected complexity as they come to terms with each different technology as well as the content of the papers.
  • Page flipping is harder on a tablet than with actual paper. Consider inserting your charts and graphs within the body of your text rather than asking Directors to scroll to the back of the document to find the chart and scroll back to the place where they were mentioned in the text.

Macro structure matters most of all

  • Conveying the essence of your message crisply and near the front of the paper is the most critical ingredient of a good paper, otherwise Directors may misconstrue your purpose and meaning from the outset
  • Adopt a consistent structure across all of your board papers, and avoid having different templates for recommendations, noting papers, etc. This makes it easier for Directors to work their way through all of the papers for your organisation and easier for the writers also.

Visual presentation of information matters even more than in the past

  • Using photocopiers to scan the papers into PDF form can lead to ugly documents that are difficult to read. Instead, use a PDF writer to create your papers and then open your papers on the right sort of tablet to check their readability.
  • Many Directors find that rotating tablets mid-way to read diagrams is disruptive, and ask for a consistent orientation (either portrait or landscape) throughout the paper and appendices.

Micro matters more than you might think

  • Small things like grammatical correctness can be distracting for those reading the papers and present a poor image of the writer. Mary has written some excellent material on this point .
  • Active language (‘She wrote the letter' versus ‘the letter was written by her') is generally better to read. However some companies still require people to write in the third person, e.g., Management wrote the letter, which makes active voice harder to use.

Keywords – #board papers #deliver your communication #board communication

 

Boards at risk of missing material issues thanks to poorly written papers

Boards at risk of missing material issues thanks to poorly written papers

I went to a terrific lunch today hosted by Let's Connect Women, where two senior directors shared valuable insights about life as a Board Director.

Toward the end of the conversation someone asked how executives can help Board Members and the conversation rapidly turned toward board papers.

It was fabulous to hear what they do and don't like, but particularly how they see poorly crafted board papers potentially putting them at risk.

Here is a snapshot of their comments organised according to what they do – and don't like – about board papers.

They DO like:

Encouragingly, Ann Sherry (Boards include Carnival Australia, ING, NAB, Palladium, Sydney Airport, Australian Rugby Union), commented that it is possible to summarise the key points from a 1,000 page report on a single page.

Both she and Patrick Allaway (Boards include David Jones, Fairfax Domain, Woolworths South Africa, Metcash), agreed that this was not only possible but also desirable and that they would like the purpose and key message up front in their papers rather than having to dig for it.

However, there was much more discussion about what they don't like.

They DON'T like:

  1. Being exposed to the risk of missing material issues because they can't untangle the papers to find them. This was a real concern and one we can relate to in many of the papers we see.
  2. Getting a brain dump of the month's activities. This suggests that not much thought has gone into the papers and raises the question about management's decision making processes, not just their writing abilities.
  3. Having to spend all weekend sifting through the papers to identify the core message buried ‘somewhere on page 25'. They would much prefer it to be spelt out up front and supported by the rest of the paper or pack.
  4. Listening to business leaders read through page after page of 40-page PowerPoint decks. They would much prefer the highlights only, given they have read the details before the meeting, and spend the time in a detailed discussion about the issues the paper raises
  5. Forcing themselves to stay awake as someone provides them with every detail they know about an issue. The word coma was used …

I thought you might like to hear it from the horse's mouth.

Keywords: board papers, leadership communication, design your strategy, understand your audience

One-page board papers: The Impossible Dream

“Impossible”.

That was management's view when the Chair of a major Corporation said they wanted board papers to be one page long with a maximum of 10 supporting “PowerPoint charts”.

But it has happened.

This Chair is not alone – other Boards that are sick of being inundated with massive, inconsistent and poorly thought out board papers are also moving toward one-pagers. They see this as a way of reducing the time and risks involved in untangling poorly prepared papers while supporting better discussion and decision making.

Here are the steps that this Chair took to achieve this “impossible” dream:

Got buy in

The Board needed to want to drive clarity and streamline board papers while ensuring all the corporate governance checks were met.

Built capability

We ran workshops for all the senior team and their direct reports who authored board papers about simple approaches to structuring problem solving (to avoid the rubbish in rubbish out syndrome), synthesising ideas into a clear and compelling argument and creating a clear board paper and supporting exhibits. One of our clients has had the board members come and talk to the board paper authors about what they are looking for in a board paper and what their hot buttons are.

Got the Board aligned

We also explained our approach and thinking to the Board so they would know how to “read” the new board papers.

Agreed ground rules

These vary by board, but the basics are the same:

  • Every board paper author must produce a “storyline” for their board paper.
  • Every board paper must conform to the agreed format and length. Some Boards include these in the board paper itself as an executive summary
  • The storyline needs to be signed off with the senior level sponsor

Shared the love

It's important to share the learning across all board paper authors and also to share examples of great board papers that others can use as a model.

The result – clearer board papers and more time spent of discussing the right issues!

Here is what a one-page board paper might look like:

Audit Story Storyline

 

 

Note. Since this was written a number of large organisations we work with have been whittling down the length of their papers. BHP Billiton, for example, is now working down from four pages to two. 

To learn how to build storyline one-pagers like this – and to cut to the chase in your own communication – explore the Clarity First Program.

This post was originally drafted by Gerard Castles, co-author of The So What Strategy and also a director with me at Clarity Thought Partners.

Gerard has helped clients prepare high-stakes communication for around 25 years in Australia, Asia Pacific, the US and the UK. His advice is highly sought after by senior managers large Australian corporates in particular, who appreciate his intense focus on logic, structure and clarity. He learned his craft as a communication specialist at McKinsey & Company.