If you are writing a serious, important document – strategic analysis, Board paper, proposal, etc – then unfortunately there’s a decent chance you are in danger of putting the reader to sleep. 

You see, one of the many traps in writing important documents, is that the urge to convey professionalism results in papers that are: lengthy; visibly dense; that use opaque nomenclature (see? when did you last use ‘nomenclature’ in ordinary business discussions); and which take forever to get to the point.

An added difficulty is that when documents are chronicling genuinely challenging matters, they often set out prolonged timescales for execution – e.g. phase one, phase two, phase three, phase four, etc.  And just looking at these copious phases (or quarters, or stages, or steps, or years, or whatever) receding into the far horizon, gives the reader a sense of precious time slipping away, as they nod off.

Part of the solution to this is speed. Writing your documents so as to create speed of comprehension; and writing your documents to make clear that something impactful will happen, soon.

Comprehension – Board papers and similar

Successful, serious documents avoid being soporific by passing a demanding cognition test. In the case of Board papers, the test is that within about 2 minutes of starting the document, the reader should have grasped the gist of it. And that holds true whether the document is two pages or 200 hundred pages long and whether you are a FTSE100 or a small firm.

How? First, as writer, you have to gather your thoughts, before you sit down to write. Make sure you have included everything relevant and you don’t repeat yourself. Then, you need to organise these thoughts into a clear structure.

In Board papers, the structure is that you first write the summary, to include: the context; the challenges being addressed; what the conclusions are. Get all that right and in the space of a few paragraphs (or a couple of pages, for complex matters), you will have summarised your entire argument. If the reader stopped there, they would understand all the important points you were trying to make.

Next, the rest of the document supports all the elements above. That can be set out in whatever strikes you as the most logical manner: geographically; temporally; by business unit; by product; whatever. But the reader will “get” the document, right from the start.

And if you have been through the gathering and organising exercises, you will find that your document is much shorter than usual. After all, the main reason that documents are lengthy and tranquillising is generally not a writer’s lack of skill with English, it’s because of the muddled thinking that results from people trying to type and gather their thoughts, edit and organise them, simultaneously, against a taxing deadline.

Proposals have a slightly different test and structure. You still go through the gathering and organising processes, but the test with these documents is that the reader is convinced of your proposal, by the time they get to about page three. Again, it doesn’t matter how long the document is, and again, that’s fast.

The structure that achieves this is: use the front cover to say something eye-catching and insightful; set out the brief (many briefs are pretty ropey, so if you can reiterate the brief, crisply, you will be off to a flying start); set out the challenges that have to be overcome (including challenges the client had not thought of – that’s a real demonstration of your professionalism); set out your strategy to overcome them. 

That gets you to about page three. If your client has been nodding in agreement to all this, then you have them pretty much convinced (bear in mind, the other proposals the client is reading will by page three still be going on about how wonderful the author’s firm is, and other predictable drivel). 

And then you get into the detail, taking care to set it out logically, without repetition or gaps. But get these first three pages nailed, and the proposal is yours to lose, because the client agrees with all the most important elements.

The problem with prolonged timescales

The thing is, clients (whether internal or external) are fed up being asked to pay money, now, for proposals that take forever to execute; meaning they can’t see value in it. And all too often, history tells them the much promised, future payoff may well turn out to be something of a disappointment. It feels like they are paying you to do nothing. So you have to convince them that this time, it’s different.

Three things to think about here. The first is to keep your document snappy (see above), as its hard to convince readers you are capable of moving at pace, when you take reams to say it.

Second is to infuse the document with action-orientated language. This is a balancing act: too much pace, zip and zest and you look ridiculous, not enough and you add to the sense of interminability.

Third is to move out of the realms of perfection and into the practical, in order to move the payoff closer:

  • Must everything be done consecutively, or can some be done concurrently? 
  • Can you undertake quick pilot studies or must everything be done full-fat? 
  • Can you provide estimates of what the work will reveal, before you have undertaken it – get these ball-park correct and you will build confidence in the necessity for and outcome of subsequent stages.
  • Are there “nice to have” steps you could legitimately miss?
  • Have you thought about the quick wins you could make, and have you scheduled them in?

Too many documents have a good story buried somewhere inside of them, but too many people just don’t have the time to read all of them, properly (this is especially true for non-executive Directors of regulated, listed businesses, where Board packs can be enormous). Which is a shame and a colossal waste.

Writing short and to the point is not complicated and can vastly improve documents, so try out what I have suggested here.

Inevitably this is but a canter through the subject. As always, there’s much to do and time is short, so good luck and get cracking.