Board papers can be lengthy and complex, and this is particularly true for highly regulated sectors – financial and health, for example.

But no matter how challenging the papers’ subjects may be – stochastic modelling of early pension redemptions, anyone? – they should always be highly readable, if the Board is to rapidly digest their content, so as to spend the maximum amount of time in deliberation on the subject in question.  

After all, the hard bit of being a Non-Executive is supposed to be deciding on the direction of the business – often in the face of incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory information – rather than working out what it is the Board papers are struggling to tell you.  

There is a simple test to assess whether your Board’s papers are good enough, irrespective of their length and no matter how complex the subject matter:

Is it possible for the reader to understand the overall argument, the key points, and the conclusion the paper is trying to explain, in 90 seconds or less?

I have worked on Board, Committee and Exco papers of regulated financial businesses, amongst others – many high-profile, household names – and believe me, no matter how difficult the subject matter, it is easy to get the comprehension time down to 90 seconds, provided the paper is drafted well.

And the number one reason for badly-drafted papers is that the thinking behind them is confused, leading to confusing drafting, making the papers convoluted and thus hard to understand. And this applies whether or not templates have been used; whether or not the papers are long or short; irrespective of the complexity of subject matter; and irrespective of how smart or well-educated the author(s). 

In short, passing the 90 second test is straight-forward. It requires the author(s) to have planned their paper before they start writing; to edit carefully as they go; and to ensure their introduction provides uncontentious context, sets out the key elements of the discussion and shows a clear conclusion; with the argument backed up in detail using the pyramid approach to drafting. 

It’s not the purpose of this paper to explain how to draft properly; rather to raise the flag that if you are unsure whether the Board papers you are reading are good enough, you should apply the 90 second test. And if they are found wanting, you should – ahem – do something about it.

As always, time is short and there’s much to do, so good luck and get cracking.