Board Paper Writing Course

A board can control the information it receives. If there was an information overload, it could have been prevented. If there was a huge amount of information, then more time may need to be taken to read and understand it.

Justice Middleton in the Centro judgement (ASIC v Healy (2011) FCA 717)

The path to better board papers

Directors have a duty to keep themselves informed about the matters put before them for decision. This duty cannot be complied with unless directors have the relevant material upon which to base their decisions. Board papers are a key source of information for board members, but are also a source of concern for many boards.

Some common problems directors face when they review board papers—and about which board paper writers should be aware and avoid—include that the papers:

  • are written for management, not the board;
  • assume the board members all share the writer’s in-depth knowledge of a topic;
  • are poorly written;
  • are badly structured;
  • are poorly presented;
  • are too detailed; and
  • focus on the benefits and gloss over the risks.

Executives and managers responsible for writing board papers will remain unaware of these issues, if directors do not provide guidance on what is expected in terms of the format, content analysis, and style of board papers. From our experience at Effective Governance, executives and managers may simply require standard templates setting out such things as the structure of the paper to focus the writer on the areas of importance for the board. We also recommend policy and procedures to further clarify the board’s expectations for board papers, which can form part of the board’s charter or be a standalone policy document.

Training on board paper writing is also useful for managers, since writing for the board, especially non-executive directors, is not the same as writing a report for another manager.

Tips for board paper writers

If time and effort is devoted to preparing any paper or report for the board, then it should have a real purpose. Board papers do have a real purpose, they are the means by which the board fulfils its oversight responsibilities and makes decisions that affect the organisation’s future direction. Therefore, board paper writers should consider:

  • What do we want to achieve by writing this paper?
  • What do we want the board to do in response?
  • What do directors need from my paper?

The challenge for board paper writers is not to provide more data or information—a temptation with electronic board packs—but to have better informed directors, which in turn makes for better boardroom deliberations and decisions. Thus, the writer’s focus should be on quality, not quantity.

Importantly, writers should recognise that there are three types of board papers they will be expected to provide:

  • Papers for decision;
  • Papers for discussion; and
  • Papers for noting.

Further, using an appropriate level and style of language is a feature of effective business writing. Plain English is the preferred style for board papers. However, writing in plain English should not be confused with ‘dumbing down’.

Effective Governance can provide a 4-hour course that delivers guidance for board paper writers. It will also improve the quality of board papers as well as internal and external communications. If you feel that this is beneficial to your board, contact us.

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