How to handle ‘background’ in board papers

How to handle ‘background’ in board papers

How often do you see decision making papers that begin with a section for background? And … how often is that background really, really long?

This is a problem on a number of levels, not only because board members and other leaders routinely list ‘too much background' as one of their pet hates.

Some audiences, however, have greatly mixed needs for background which creates some difficulty.

So, what to do?

I am offering five strategies you could employ depending upon your confidence regarding the audience's situation.

Where you are confident that the audience needs a ‘quick refresh' rather than an opportunity to ask questions and discuss the issues, adopt these two strategies:

Strategy #1 – Refer to and link out to any past papers to avoid repetition but still provide new members with access to the relevant history. You might say something like this: In last month's meeting we discussed four potential options for solving problem X (See last month's paper here). This is easily done where you are using an electronic paper system, such as BoardRoom.

Strategy #2 – Include relevant past papers in an appendix. This is useful when you don't have the ability to hyperlink to the past paper.

Where you are not confident that the audience will remember the content (perhaps because the discussion was truncated or you have a highly technical issue that is on the margins of their experience), include the information in the story in one of three ways.

Strategy #1 – Weave the messages into the new story. If reminding them about options discussed earlier, you might go with a deductive structure to allow more room for reasoning. Here are two suggestions.

  • Use a To Be or Not To Be structure to explain the options before making your recommendation, rather than just saying ‘Option B is Best before offering a list of reasons why you are recommending it.
  • Remind them of the problem being solved by merging Houston and To B or Not To B. You can use a Houston structure for your ‘statement', and following with ‘However, Option B is Best' for your comment and then leading into your therefore, implement Option B.


Strategy #2 – Use a Watch Out pattern to include a generous amount of detail on what's been done so far. This is always a useful pattern for when you need to change direction, but where your audience isn't keeping up with you, you may find it useful to be ‘fulsome' in your statement. The comment that allows for ‘risks ahead' can be tweaked in all sorts of ways to allow for necessary changes that you have just identified.

Strategy #3 – Add a section in your grouping to cover off on the ‘background'. This could be done (at least!) two ways:

  • In an Action Jackson story where you are describing how to implement something, start the first section with a message like this: “Become familiar with the options available”. This provides an opportunity for you to then describe the options as the first step in a process.
  • In a Pitch Pattern, weave the information throughout the story as you touch on key topics. If you are referring options, then describe the options in a deductive flow underneath the “We have a great solution” section.


I hope that helps.

Kind regards,
Davina


Related posts …

A script to help you get feedback on a storyline

A script to help you get feedback on a storyline

This week one of our number was using a storyline with their manager for the first time and was wondering whether there were ways to set up the conversation better.

In the spirit of helping, I have outlined some suggestions to help you explain to a ‘non storyliner' how to engage in a storyline.

Here's the draft for you to cut and paste into your own email or to stimulate a conversation as well as an opportunity to download the draft here.

++++++++++++++++++++++

Hi colleague / boss,

I have been thinking about X issue and have outlined my early thinking on a page for your consideration.

Before you review it, I'd like to explain how the page works so the diagram makes sense to you.

  1. It is a discussion draft. Although the ideas are I hope in a clear and logical place within the structure, the ideas are very much open for debate. I thought mapping them out like this would help us discuss the issue further so we can land on the final messaging.
  2. It outlines my current thinking in a way that may seem more assertive than usual. You will see that the ideas are anchored around a single message that is crafted as a point of view. The technique I am using encourages us to flush out the main thought and be upfront about it, before diving into the details below. As mentioned, the ideas are very much open for debate.
  3. Once we agree on the messaging, we can easily turn these ideas into a well-structured document of any kind. I would like to hold off on preparing the document until we agree the ideas to minimise rework. Focusing on the one-pager first will keep us focused on the main ideas and encourage us to ‘nail these' without being distracted by document formatting. My experience so far suggests we can save time this way.

I look forward to discussing issue X with you further in our upcoming meeting.

Regards,
Fred

++++++++++++++++++++++

 

 

Kind regards,
Davina

 

PS – Watch out for a separate email this week inviting you to an opportunity to hear from William Cowan, on Building a Winning Career.

William is terrific and we are privileged to be the first to hear about his new book, which launches on the day of our interview.

I hope you can join us at 8am on Thursday 2 December Sydney time. We will of course record for those who can't make it.

The difference between being ‘clear’ and being compelling’

The difference between being ‘clear’ and being compelling’

This week's working groups provided an excellent opportunity to think about the difference between being ‘clear' and being ‘compelling'.

I have drawn out three key takeaways that highlight that although being clear is a useful place to start, it is often not enough.

Making the leap from being clear to being compelling required us to lean into my favourite question: why?

Did the ‘trigger' really describe why we were communicating about the information in the context? For example:

Version 1 – The Board has used this as an opportunity to review the Constitution and governance practices to ensure compliance and to identify opportunities for improvement.

Version 2 – We are proposing some amendments for your consideration ahead of the coming AGM

Did the ‘so what' synthesise the items together and explain 
why this group of actions was necessary?

Version 1 – Amending the Constitution will ensure it is able to reflect community expectations, provide flexibility, allow for technological advances and meet best practice governance standards.
 
Version 2 –The Board seeks Members' endorsement at the AGM to amend the Constitution to meet best practice governance standards and maintain full funding.
Did each top line point explain explain why each group of actions was important?

Version 1 – With one exception, was a list of topics rather than messages
    • Reflect community expectations [the exception]
    • Clarification and flexibility
    • Technological advances
    • Governance best practice
Version 2 –A list of outcomes that each group of amendments would deliver
    • Reflect community expectations by being more inclusive
    • Clarify lines of responsibility to tighten governance and qualify for future funding
    • Allow for technological advances
    • Update timeframes around the voting process

Here is the video from the working session.

Hacking requirements for a job application

How do you handle being provided with 7 criteria that must be addressed in a cover letter when you want to offer a tight message highlighting your strengths?

In this short session, we showcased a strategy for ‘hacking’ requirements on a job application letter. This strategy allows you to give the potential employer what they want while making sure you also get to feature the skills and experience you wish to.

Including your storylining and communication skills, of course!

UPDATE: A few weeks later, we had the chance to work through the cover letter Andrew created as a result of our first session. I've included the recording below as it is a useful example of how to finesse the final product.

How to ‘amp up’ your message

How to ‘amp up’ your message

In a recent working session, we worked up a ‘soft’ sales pitch for a software company to deliver to an existing client.

Hiding inside are some useful lessons that will help you increase the value you deliver when communicating.

To illustrate the point from the get-go: which is more useful to you?

  1. The most outstanding lesson to me is the difference between structuring our communication around ‘categories’ versus around ‘messages’.
  2. The most outstanding lesson to me is way we can ‘amp up’ the value we deliver by structuring our communication around ‘messages’ rather than ‘categories’.

My hope is that you went with #2!

The first is a bland statement, and the second offers a clear point of view. Let me unpack that more for you using today’s example and a couple of other recent ones also.

Today’s example emerged from a visually stunning template that hid the messages

Today’s initial draft that used the organisation’s ‘classic’ template had some terrific things going for it. It was stunningly branded and designed, had very little information on each page and was visually crisp. It had super short titles like:

  • Product name
  • Problem
  • Team

These are useful categories to cover but hide the message. What are you saying about the product name or the problem? In fact, what IS the problem you propose solving?

This is something I see a lot across all of my clients, especially when templates are in play, so I thought worth raising here.

Using message titles massively ‘amps up’ the value you deliver when communicating

The ‘amp’ comes from delivering a point of view rather than just data.

This requires us to take a risk when thinking through our communication which might feel a bit scary, but which demonstrates we are in a ‘thinking role’ not just a ‘doing role’.

If we want to transition from operations – or deliver maximum possible value in our operational role – I suggest that this is essential.

Business leaders who compliment their team’s communication are rarely first and foremost focusing on their language use.

They may comment on the polish as an aside, but they focus on the substance – the value-add.

You go from ‘product name’ to ‘Product X is a great fit for you, or perhaps Product X is well placed to solve Y problem (that you currently face)’

Or, perhaps, from ‘Team’ to ‘Our team can integrate seamlessly with yours given our existing relationship’

This is also relevant outside sales environments, such as this one.

So, let’s amp up your own communication by using 3 steps to layer messages onto the categories
  1. take advantage of your ability to categorise at the outset by jotting down the high-level categories you want to discuss in your communication. This will help you get started while also helping you assess whether the ideas are MECE.
  2. describe your observation about that category
  3. now go further and draw out your insightful message about that observation.

Here’s an example from a non-sales setting:

  • Category: Current landscape
  • Information: We need to understand the current landscape from everyone’s perspective
  • Insightful message: Understand that the current process isn’t serving anyone’s interests

You may also like to visit this post where I talk about the communication value ladder. It offers more insight and examples to illustrate the sorts of communication that adds value.

You will notice that ‘category' doesn't even make it to the bottom of our value ladder.

I hope that helps.

Have a great week.
Davina

Want ideas for getting the most out of the program?

 

I had a terrific conversation with one of our new members today who was bemoaning her lack of progress in the program so far. Like many of you, she has a busy job and hasn't yet found her ‘groove'.

Here are three ideas that she thought would work for her, that might help you also:

 

  1. Listen to some of the interviews stored in the library during your commute. There are a number, all tagged ‘interview' on topics such as board papers, hypothesis driven problem solving and how to get the information you need from busy stakeholders to prepare a piece of communication.
  2. Lock a time into your diary near the start of your day to complete a module or two. Instead of leaving your learning to the end of the day where it may be ‘run over', locking away 15 minutes will see you finish a module, giving you something useful to try that day.
  3. Set up a time for a 10 minute chat with Sheena to learn to navigate the portal. If you aren't sure how to find what you need, Sheena is very happy to Zoom with you to demonstrate.

How to close the gap between what is on your head and what is on the page

How to close the gap between what is on your head and what is on the page

In conducting a quick review of Brian’s email at the start of this week’s working session we identified some common challenges that stem from a common problem.

How do we match what the reader takes from the page with what is in our heads as the communicator?

This is the holy grail of communication and can be particularly challenging to achieve when trying to follow the ‘rules’ of building a storyline.

With practice, these two things come together, but today’s example highlights some traps to avoid during this learning journey while also reminding us of how to bring the ‘real world’ together with the theory.

[As an aside, I want to thank Brian for sharing this one with us. There was lots of good to take away about the supporting structures … the opportunities for improvement lay particularly with the introduction.]

Tip 1 – Start the story ‘very close’ to the real event rather than going back in time

 

Starting with ‘screeds of background’ is one of the biggest complaints senior leaders have of decision-making papers and updates.

It is also a turnoff for other audiences who need to wade through it all before getting to the main game.

Yet, this is a very common challenge I see in corporate communication of all kinds, which stems I think from a fear of the audience not knowing enough history about the topic being discussed.

So, what to do?

Imagine yourself sitting down with your audience with a cup of coffee. Speak the words you would say to open the conversation. Out loud, possibly into your phone to capture them, not with your fingers on your keyboard.

These may well be the words to use at the start of your communication and if not, they will get you closer than starting ‘writing’.

Here is the difference you will see:

Context going too far back in time –

Regulations that came into effect on 1st June 2021 are being addressed in the Project by implementing a new database and new commissions processing system (Performio). Imagine a few lines of details explaining what has been done to implement the new system.

Context that reflects the right point in time (acknowledging the sentence is a bit long) –

One of the key decisions we need to make now before we go live on 1 October is whether we switch now to the new system or continue to operate the old system in parallel to allow more time to integrate Performio with its dependent systems.

Tip 2 – Avoid conflating the trigger for communicating with the trigger for doing something. These are not the same thing.

 

We use the trigger in storylining to explain to our audience why we are communicating to them about the context right now. We do this so that

The words we use in the trigger will prime them to ask the question we want them to ask.
The link should be so smooth and obvious, they can go nowhere else but to the question we are sending them to … so we can answer it with the ‘so what’.

We don’t use the trigger to explain what has happened to cause the problem or deliver the opportunity we are presenting. This will either be known to the audience and so appear in the context, or news and appear in the so what or the body of the story.

Let me use this example again to illustrate what I mean.

Trigger for communicating –

I have a recommendation for managing this process that needs your approval.

This leads to the question: What is your recommendation?

Trigger for doing something –

Testing analysis for both the database and system have revealed gaps and defects that are currently being fixed for retesting.

This leads to several questions, none of which help set you up to provide the message you need to provide: So? Why do I need to know that? How is this relevant to me?

 

Tip 3 – Craft the question to include only knowledge that you have provided the audience so far in your communication

 

In Tip 2 I explained how using the trigger for doing something sends the audience away from, rather than towards, our so what message.

Another challenge is drafting the question using information that is in our heads and not on the paper.

The initial question from this email was:

Question: Why do we need to retain BCS-BBC processing of Mixed deals in October?

This included information that was not presented to the audience in the context and trigger.

The question needs to flow naturally and so obviously it feels redundant. It might even seem stupidly simple.

Click here >> to get the full before and afters and view the recording.

I hope that helps and look forward to bringing you more next week.

Kind Regards,

Davina

Want ideas for getting the most out of the program?

 

I had a terrific conversation with one of our new members today who was bemoaning her lack of progress in the program so far. Like many of you, she has a busy job and hasn't yet found her ‘groove'.

Here are three ideas that she thought would work for her, that might help you also:

 

  1. Listen to some of the interviews stored in the library during your commute. There are a number, all tagged ‘interview' on topics such as board papers, hypothesis driven problem solving and how to get the information you need from busy stakeholders to prepare a piece of communication.
  2. Lock a time into your diary near the start of your day to complete a module or two. Instead of leaving your learning to the end of the day where it may be ‘run over', locking away 15 minutes will see you finish a module, giving you something useful to try that day.
  3. Set up a time for a 10 minute chat with Sheena to learn to navigate the portal. If you aren't sure how to find what you need, Sheena is very happy to Zoom with you to demonstrate.