Be consistent at all levels of writing
I’ve read a lot of board papers lately and been reminded of the need for consistency at every level of a paper. Consistent messaging provides clarity while inconsistent messaging leads to questioning and distrust.
When your formatting, word choice and styles are consistent, no feature stands out to distract readers from your main points. When your style choices are inconsistent, readers can get sidetracked and lose concentration.
Have consistent messaging
The summary is the place to highlight the key messages, but sometimes writers ‘massage’ information in the summary to provide an upbeat message, creating a disconnect when you read the body, which isn’t as positive.
For instance, I read a summary that gave a glowing report of the company’s performance, but in the body, I discovered that the last few months had been difficult. Why wasn’t this acknowledged in the summary?
Provide consistent data and commentary
Inconsistent messaging often occurs between a table of data within a paper or appendix and the commentary. This is probably caused by the data being gathered from multiple sources.
For instance, some items in a data table may show a green status, but the commentary speaks about what is being done to manage issues of concern. The commentary may be written by the author and be more up to date, but how do directors know which information to trust?
Use a purpose statement consistently
I don’t see many templates with purpose statements anymore. Most now start with a recommendation (sometimes called a ‘draft resolution’). But I saw an old-fashioned template recently with a purpose statement and it reminded me why I hate them.
Sometimes, the board-paper guidelines provided by your company attempt to clarify what should be in the purpose statement, but often companies don’t have guidelines or writers don’t read them. Then personal preferences prevail. For instance, one writer might use a purpose statement as an introduction, another could treat it as a summary, a third could give a reason why the board was receiving the paper (e.g. compliance requirement) and a fourth treat it as a recommendation.
In most guidelines I have read, the purpose is meant to mirror the recommendation.
Purpose: To seek approval from the Board for $X for Y.
Recommendation: That the Board approve $X for Y.
Solution: Canvass to have the purpose statement removed from the template, and if that fails, find out how your company would like you to use it.
Use consistent styles for recommendations
While the content of recommendations is obviously more important than styles, you wouldn’t think it would be hard for everyone to use the same styles. But it is.
I see all of the following styles:
- It is recommended that the Board resolve to approve…
- It is recommended that the Board approve…
- That the Board approve…
- That the Committee endorse for Board approval…
- That the Committee recommend to the Board to approve…
- That the Board note this paper.
- That the Board note that… (summary of main points)
Don’t change your template
Templates help provide consistency, and you should not change them. The major headings are usually mandatory, but you can add your own subheadings. Even though I hate purpose statements, I would write one if the template required it.
Your template should dictate your fonts and other formatting, such as heading styles and whether a page is full justified or left-aligned and right-ragged.
Ideally, the whole board pack should have a consistent look and feel. However, many writers change the template to suit their personal style. For instance, I see headings that are bold, italics or underlined.
Use consistent words
Changing first-choice words for the sake of variety can cause confusion. I read one paper that talked about ‘X process’ in the title, then asked the board to note ‘X program’ in the recommendation.
In another paper, the key terms were defined and then referred to with different words in the following commentary.
Use consistent styles
Consistent styles are obviously not as important as consistent messaging, but inconsistent styles are distracting. They indicate that either the author hasn’t paid enough attention to detail or the paper was written or edited by a number of people with different preferences.
Some of the inconsistencies I find annoying are:
- Dates written in different styles (5 July, 5th July)
- Money written about in different styles ($5M, $5m, $5 million)
- Financial years written about differently (FY20, FY19-20, FY19 – FY20)
- Hyphens used inconsistently even within a section (year-end, year end, yearend)
- Different list styles (semicolons, commas, no punctuation etc.)
- Company names treated as singular and plural (Westpac is, Westpac are)
Solution: Have a two-page board-paper style guide that everyone uses.
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