The Art Of An Effective Briefing Paper: 10 Do’s And Don’ts

Posted by: on Jun 9, 2020 | No Comments

With political lockdown starting to ease, the government will need to demonstrate that it has ideas for the future. That should be viewed as an opportunity for pro-active public affairs engagement. So getting the briefing papers right is the starting point.

Given that it was only elected in December 2019 and within only a few months it was dominated by the COVID-19 crisis, the government can, with some justification, think about itself as being a new government when the lockdown really starts to ease. That will be the time that it can dust off the manifesto and start to deliver on its promises, not least Brexit.

So a raft of policies, some old and dusted off, some new, will start to be announced. In advance of that, officials will have to work up some level of detail.

My approach to public affairs is that it should be pro-active. Opportunities do not often just land at your feet. Instead you have to go out there, develop the networks and have a well-developed argument. In many instances, this argument will come together in a briefing paper.

There is the standard advice about the content and length of a briefing paper but there should a little more to it than that. Here and 10 do’s and don’ts.

  • Don’t just rely on the power of a narrative – however eloquent you may be, a stream of words saying this works, that does not, we need etc., may be interesting but will do little to convince anyone.
  • Do present the evidence – any good briefing paper has to have some evidence – either case studies or data (domestic as well as potentially international). Without it a briefing paper can read just like a political wish list. The key messages in the document should be related directly to this evidence.
  • Do infographics – although within the general confines of keep the briefing paper brief, do think about making papers look and feel a little more enticing. If the evidence can be presented in an interesting way then do that. This can be particularly useful when it comes to turning the briefing papers into blogs, newsletters and other communications materials to help engagement with other external audiences.
  • Do be prepared to kick the briefing paper around – a good briefing paper will be seen be a range of audiences so it needs to be understood by experts and non-experts so get different people to read and feedback on it.
  • Do be able to answer the questions – when the experts and non-experts come back with questions, these will doubtless be similar to the ones that politicians and civil servants will ask. Before launching your briefing paper on an unsuspecting audience, make sure you can answer these questions. A failure to be able to do so will undermine your case.
  • Do avoid jargon – many of those who see the paper could well fail to understand an argument if it is full of jargon, it normally only confuses rather than clarifies. The idea is not to speak in a special code that only expert audiences can understand.
  • Do not go on for too long – whilst two sides of A4 may be a good rule of thumb, it is only a guide. Members of the House of Lords can often take a longer paper.
  • Do have supporting materials available – if the briefing paper is not enough for people then have some wider papers available as well or think about what else they may need. Could that be related to meeting (or Zooming at the moment) with key team members or those involved in any case studies cited or maybe a site visit?
  • Do always think about the follow-up – a lot of the art in a good briefing paper comes from fully understanding the intended audience, their timescales, expectations and the processes under which they have to operate. In other words, it looks outwards rather than inwards. A good briefing paper should be seen as a taster.
  • Do always offer a solution – if there is one point of the ten to remember then it is this one. Always explain to the audience how the issue can be dealt with. What is the policy ask, or amendment to the legislation etc., that would solve the problem?

I’d be really interested in hearing from others about what they have found works well for them. Do let me know directly or share on social media.

Briefing papers are at the heart of public affairs and engagement. It is critical to get them right.