As part of our research for our latest report, The ExCo’s Guide to Shorter Papers, we spoke with John Tonkiss, CEO of McCarthy Stone. Below are snippets of the conversation that we couldn’t fit in the original report but were just too good not to share.
Why do you think people write lengthy board reports?
We aren’t trained to synthesise our thoughts concisely or are rewarded for being pithy in our writing, and we’re programmed from a young age to believe that more is more.
My son is currently at university and his essays all have a minimum word count! Surely there should be an emphasis on quality over quantity? The English language is beautiful, but there’s also beauty in simplicity and concision, especially when you want to write a clean board report.
“The English language is beautiful, but there’s also beauty in simplicity and concision, especially when you want to write a clean board report.”
Who is responsible for delivering shorter papers?
Primarily, it’s the Executive Committee member who asked for this paper. Executive leaders owe it to themselves, the paper writer, and the board, to set time aside and think about what they want this paper to say.
I typically carve out half a day to do this. If your report authors dread reporting day, you’re doing something wrong. They likely feel in the dark about where to begin and what to include — in which case, you need to revisit your briefing process.
What should Executive Committee members do when they get a paper that doesn’t hit the mark?
Your paper writers aren’t born knowing how to write well and succinctly. It’s our duty as Executive Committee members to give feedback, so everyone knows where they stand. I set the tone from the top. If I get a paper that’s more than four pages, I’ll send it back. I’ve made my expectations clear, and I practice what I preach — but I’ve had to retrain myself too.
I was guilty of producing War and Peace-style reports, but I soon learnt that this only clouded the board’s judgment of both me as a leader and the message I wanted to get across.
What’s been the impact of embedding better writing habits in your organisation?
The quality of our board papers is getting better with every meeting. We use Board Intelligence’s library of templates to embed consistent writing habits and because of this, board members know where to look for certain information — so it’s easier to have an effective conversation off the back of a paper.
One of my colleagues produced an excellent paper recently that stuck so well to the frameworks that I set out, and I hold it up as a shining example for everyone else. We managed to make seven strategic decisions off the back of this shorter paper! If that’s not a case for concise writing, I don’t know what is.
“We managed to make seven strategic decisions off the back of this shorter paper! If that’s not a case for concise writing, I don’t know what is.”
If you like the sound of producing shorter, sharper papers, download The ExCo’s Guide to Shorter Papers, and learn how to get started within your organisation.