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Words, words, words and some numbers

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger
I worked for many years in an organisation where the chair of the board and the chief executive thought the board was basically there to rubber stamp their decisions. Controversial reports were always placed well down the agenda so that by the time they were reached board members would have run out of energy.  Reports were written in technical  language full of professional jargon, more to impress than communicate. As long as the performance figures were going in the right direction no one asked any awkward questions. Occasionally this lack of curiosity would result in board members being taken by surprise only to be informed they voted in favour at their last board meeting. But when performance dipped alarmingly everything changed.
More frequent board meetings but shorter agendas. All reports to have a half page executive summary at the beginning. Reports to be written in plain English and jargon free. Clear distinction between reports for information and those requiring decisions. Report authors to be present to introduce reports and answer questions. However the real change was in the boards attitude to reports and report writers. Whilst acknowledging the expertise of report authors they broadened the discussion to look at the possible wider implications and any ethical considerations. True, there is a tendency just to read the executive summary.
Organisation provide guidance on writing a report for the board and there is often a template used to standardise reports. However writing a report for the board is very different to writing a report for your professional colleagues and is defiantly not the place to show off your knowledge and jargon or trying to prove over many pages how hard you and your team have been working. The board is made up of the organisations most influential and important people. Your brevity and clarity will enhance your reputation not your technical knowledge or or use of technical terminology.
Reports for the board are usually shared in draft with Finance and HR in order for them to identify any implications before being signed off by the relevant Director. In theory the Director would just be familiarising themselves with the report and reassuring themselves that the recommendations are in line with their discussions with senior managers. However a Director I worked for couldn’t help but make changes some times of grammar but mostly of tone and style. This wasn’t changing the odd word or rephrasing a sentence , although it may have started that way, it was rewriting whole paragraphs. Authors regularly  complained, although not to the Director, that the result subtly changed the emphasis of their reports. This rewriting  process caused a log jam of reports resulting in reports  being deferred to the next board meeting, much to everyone’s frustration.
Rather than resulting in better written reports authors treated their work as rough drafts which would be rewritten by the Director. The Director felt his approach was justified because reports came to him in such an ,”unpolished “ rudimentary state. The Director that followed had a more relaxed attitude.
The reason reports to boards are so often lacking in brevity and clarity is that professionals tend to write for other professionals yet assume that the same skill equips them for writing for any audience. It doesn’t.
 A little training would go along way.

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