If you’re not entirely sure what board papers are, let’s start there. Board papers outline key information on the discussion points, decisions and actions required for a board meeting and are usually a few pages in length. This is not to be confused with board minutes, which are different.
Generally speaking, guidelines for a board paper include:
- An executive summary
- Background information and context
- Discussion points and actions
Board papers are a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to governance, giving the key decision-makers the information they need and keeping board meetings as structured and effective as possible. Without being part of the day-to-day running of a business, the board of directors rely on the information given to them in board reports to make the right decisions.
Without the right information and presentation, there may be oversights and misunderstandings that can have knock-on effects on the rest of the business. So, as someone who prepares documents for the board, how can you ensure that you’re writing effective board papers each and every time? Let’s take a look.
Why do you need to write board papers effectively?
The purpose of the board of directors is to make sure that the business is heading in the right direction and the right activities are taking place. That’s why they need to be aware of any issues that may stand in the way of business progress.
As some boards meet semi-regularly, well-prepared board papers are vital in equipping directors with the information they need to make effective, timely decisions. Too often they are overwhelming in volume and information, yet still insufficient for good decision-making.
11 steps to help write effective board papers every time
The impact of board papers on meetings and effective decision-making is often overlooked. Here are a few steps that will help ensure you write effective board papers every time:
1. Write for the reader
During the development of board papers, keep in mind that you are writing for the reader. Know what purpose your documents have and what information is necessary and unnecessary for the board to know to make strategic decisions. Often, high-level insights at a departmental level, as well as overviews of the available data, will give the board everything they need.
Top tip: Don’t forget that a picture is worth a 1,000 words – instead of going into detail, it’s appropriate to use graphs, pie charts and/or tables as applicable to better display information and data trends.
2. Write in plain English
Too much jargon can decrease the value of the information and divert attention from what is actually important. Remember to write in plain and simple English to make it easy for anyone and everyone. Each director on the board will have their own expertise, so marketing jargon isn’t relevant for a board that includes someone who deals only with finances, and vice versa.
As part of the general board paper process, use a formal business writing style to keep the content relevant and understandable for all involved. If there is unavoidable jargon, technical terms or legalese, try to include a glossary of meanings.
3. Include only new information
As board meetings are often restricted in time, don’t rehash the same content from previous meetings. While reminders and context are appropriate and valuable, presenting ‘old’ information as new is unhelpful and not a good use of the time available.
Again, time management is key in board meetings, so it’s important to stick to the agenda, keep things moving and get decisions made quickly. Therefore, when preparing board papers, be sure to weed out unnecessary details and only share short and crisp points from the topics covered to achieve maximum effect with minimal information.
Similarly to point 3, context is key, but be mindful of the level of detail included and think about how relevant this is to the decision-making process.
5. Don’t duplicate the management report
For effective board papers, don’t just copy the information from the management report. Here are some critical differences between a management report and a board paper:
|Management report||Board paper|
|Department-specific||Runs across the entire business|
|Aimed at internal stakeholders including low-level management||Aimed at the board of directors|
|Generally related to one particular purpose or strategy||Intended to support multiple high-priority decisions|
|Tracks performance||Does not actively track performance|
|Makes predictions about the future based on previous data||Aids future decision-making, including information about the consequences and potential risks involved in each scenario|
|Data-heavy and detailed||High-level data only|
|Not an official record||An official record|
While information from the management reports may be appropriate to use, board papers require less detail. Copying and pasting the same information from the management report will not help to have an effective board meeting.
6. Facts and evidence are your best friends
As the author of the board papers, it’s easy to underestimate your knowledge of the context and core reasons behind each statement. Especially as you are editing a wide range of data and evidence into smaller, easy-to-digest points. The reader might not have the same knowledge you do.
Top tip: Back up persuasive statements with evidence that can assure the reader what you say makes sense, without overexplaining.
7. Follow content with strategy
Board paper writers should remember that, after mentioning a step taken, it is useful to follow up with the strategy that was considered. This helps readers understand the goals behind the steps taken.
For example, you might explain to the board that the sales team has started to use an additional method for sales. This may need extra funding. Demonstrate to the board why this was tested initially – perhaps through competitor insights or customer feedback. This helps the board of directors to better understand the journey, context and background before making a decision on the way forward.
8. Properly structure your content
To keep the board documents simple to understand, use a structure that prioritises and clearly showcases the most important topics. This should form an ongoing style for board papers for that particular board. Use the following formatting styles to keep the document clear:
- Create a structured layout. This may include an index or appendix and page numbers.
- Use the house style, preferred options for fonts and relevant branding (including colours as necessary).
- Format headers and titles.
- Use bullet points for key facts rather than lengthy paragraphs.
- Use bold, italic and underline formatting options to highlight key issues.
- If online, share sources of information using hyperlinks.
Good structuring also means creating a logical order to the documents. If one decision can’t be reached until another is made, it’s logical to position the critical decision first to help inform the second decision.
9. Keep it concise, accurate and relevant
Simplify the information you share, and justify it with facts and figures. Only include the most relevant details, and make sure all information is accurate. As needed, link to or share an appendix with relevant sources, previous board meetings or notes to demonstrate accuracy.
In the same vein, double-checking your sources of information and data is crucial. And so is transparency. If there are big decisions to be made, make sure the risks and consequences of each outcome are explored thoroughly, instead of just highlighting the benefits of each option.
10. Keep on editing
Give yourself ample time for board paper preparation. Don’t be scared to edit the document and cut it back. Start by adding the information you think is most relevant, then step back overnight and go through it again the following morning. This will give you a fresh perspective and more of an editing eye.
Don’t refrain from editing, and keep doing so until you feel the information shared is to the point. Your goal is to provide the most relevant and valuable insights to help the board members make a decision. So, don’t be afraid to cut sections out if you don’t think they’re helpful to the process.
11. Understand the value of feedback
Peer feedback helps improve the board paper, especially when seen from a fresh pair of eyes. A great tip for making sure that your points are coherent is to use Google Translate to read the text, and that will allow you to hear any sentences that don’t make sense.
If this is your first time creating a board paper, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback. Many of the board members will have had previous experience with such papers and may be able to give you some pointers for your next one.
What do directors need from board papers?
Board papers need to clearly demonstrate all necessary information, facts and figures to assist strategic decision-making. Having missing, incomplete or false information can lead to poor decisions and, as a result, a lack of business progress.
Directors and non-executive directors alike have a duty to stay informed when making decisions. In some cases, poor decision-making could lead to removal from their position or even legal action if they’ve not acted fairly or in good faith.
So, what do the directors need from board papers?
- Information on holistic organisation performance
- Details of critical events, corporate crises and large-scale issues
- Changes made or discussed since the previous meeting
- A key summary of the decisions to be made, including relevant context and background
- Balanced and unbiased outcome forecasting, including risks, consequences and benefits
- A plan of action.
What are the ‘Three C’s’?
When it comes to preparing documents for the board, keeping the three C’s of effective communication in mind (or even five C’s, according to some) is critical for success! As you’re writing and editing the documents, remember to keep them Clear, Concise and Complete. Use Clear language and explanations, keep the information brief to make it Concise and make sure all relevant information is included to create Complete board papers.
How long should a board paper be?
The regularity of board meetings and time since the last one can, to an extent, dictate how long a board paper should be. However, keeping it as short as possible (while still concise) is a good idea. Try to keep it to a maximum of three to four pages. This will ensure the meeting is effective. If your board report is longer than this, consider editing it down to only the most relevant information.
What are the three types of board papers?
The three types of board papers are:
- Papers for decision or approval
- Papers for discussion
- Papers for noting
Papers for decision or approval give the board the data they need to make an informed decision. Papers for discussion are generally completed to make the board aware of a certain issue or potential issue; this may need a decision in the future but not immediately. Papers for noting are used to share information where no action or decision is needed.
The type of board paper will help inform the structure and data required.
Following the 11 steps outlined above will keep you on the right track when you’re writing effective board papers. Bear in mind the Three C’s – Clear, Concise and Complete. Focus on presenting the information in an easy-to-understand format. Keep your wording and context relevant and brief.
If you want to speed up the board paper writing process, try board management software such as iBabs. For company secretaries, iBabs can save you hours of preparation and planning for board meetings while helping you to facilitate them safely online.