Writing a Briefing Note

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas 109

writingbriefingnotesConcept description

Briefing notes are a way to quickly and succinctly provide information to a wide audience. However, their ability to do so depends on the quality of writing and, in particular, how concisely information is put forward.

In government extremely complex information often has to be communicated quickly and effectively up the decision-making chain. Whilst in the ideal world, the right person would always be around to answer questions and provide information; this isn’t always possible, especially not on a tight timeline.

The purpose of briefing notes 

Briefing notes can be used for a wide variety of purposes. Ultimately the exact content should match the reason that someone would want to read the note. A few examples are:

  • Decision Notes: Which concisely present information around a particular policy issue, and a series of options for decision makers to choose from;
  • Information Notes: Which provide high-level information on a particular policy, program, or area of government;
  • Issues Notes: Which provide high-level summaries of particular issues that have emerged that the reader will have to know about;
  • House Notes: Which provide a combination of information for Ministers speaking about particular issues in the legislature.These can overlap – decision notes will necessarily have some of the same information as issues or information notes, and so on. The important thing is to ask why a particular briefing note has been requested, and to tailor contents accordingly.
Content

Most briefing notes include the following sections:

  • Title: The title should be positioned at the top, bolded, and at a glance describe the note for the reader.
  • Summary: A section with 2-3 bullet points providing the highest-level summary of the issue possible.
  • Background: What contextual information is necessary that the reader might now know? Content will depend on the note, but could include:
    • Who is involved;
    • What is being done;
    • When it is being done;
    • The government response;
    • The history of the issue;
    • What the public thinks.
  • Above all, everything included should be factual, simple, and relevant.
  • Consider whether the reader would need to know any particular piece of information. Is there an extremely important statistic or quote that would assist them? If so this should be included in a prominent position.
  • Attribution: Some ministries or departments will have templates, particularly for keeping track of who authored briefing notes, and where they came from. Be sure to check if these elements, and whether there is a particular template you should follow.
Style

There is no set style for a briefing note as they will vary depending on the audience. Indeed, there may be and official Style Guide that needs to be followed. No matter what precise style is used, keep the following points in mind:

  • Length: A briefing note should be as short and to the point as possible. Ideally one page, and two pages at the absolute limit.
  • Bullet points should be used, with sentences as short and concise as possible.
  • Content should only include points that are directly relevant. The recent history of a policy or its political significance might be useful, but can always be asked for separately.
  • Sentences should be short and to the point, using the simplest possible words, and being as jargon-free as possible (see Using Plain Language).
  • Abbreviations should be clearly spelt out the first time, with the acronym detailed, followed by the abbreviation being used each time subsequently.
Drafting a briefing note

To condense such complex topics into one page takes substantial effort, often within a condensed timeframe. A good place to start is to place all of the information that might be relevant onto a document in rough form. From this point, it can be gradually reduced with the following process:

  • Re-reading the content, asking ‘so what?’ to each point, and stripping out anything that might not be relevant.
  • Simplifying the remaining language;
  • Reading the document as a whole to determine if the sequence of information needs to be changed, or if there are any gaps.

This process is similar to that recommended for Writing a Summary.

Resources

A Google search for “how to write a briefing note” yields a number of online resources. Among the best are:

Susan Doyle (2013), How to Write a Briefing Note, in Engl302 Writing for Government, at http://web.uvic.ca/~sdoyle/E302/Notes/WritingBriefingNotes.html, accessed 10 April 2016.

Public Sector Writing, How to Write Briefing Notes, at http://www.publicsectorwriting.com/?page_id=6, accessed 10 April 2016.

Rob Parkinson (2016), Classic Format of a Briefing Note, Writing for Results Inc., at http://writingforresults.net/classic.pdf, accessed 10 April 2016.

Public Works and Government Services Canada, Write clear and effective briefing notes, at http://www.bt-tb.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/btb.php?lang=eng&cont=241, accessed 10 April 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Writing to Persuade (core topic) in Communication Skills.

Page created by: Guy Miscampbell, last modified by Ian Clark on 11 April 2016.

Image: Public Sector Writing, at http://www.publicsectorwriting.com/?page_id=6, accessed 10 April 2016.