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I give good brief, baby.
August 22, 2008 4:04 AM   Subscribe

How do I give good briefings?

I've got an ongoing opportunity to write some briefings for policymakers. I'd love any tips, tricks and guidelines that have served you well in giving good brief!

I wrote one and sent it in Weds. and the big cheese is reading it today... it's 7 pages long and distills the background of a situation, governmental responses to it at various levels, what various agencies want the cheese to do, and what I think the cheese should do in the context of what's good politics.

Should I annotate and cite and footnote everything like a uni paper? Should I appendix the big fat documents and websites I used and minutes of meetings I arranged and what not to the briefing? Should I be shorter? Longer?

Any tricks in terms of approach/presentation to make my recommendations more persuasive?

Anything I'm not thinking of?
posted by By The Grace of God to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In college, I wrote point papers for the Air Force (which are condensed briefings, really, for folks with no time for a whole briefing) and I would say "no citations and annotations and footnotes". Have those available, collated and keep a footnoted version of the brief for yourself, in the event of follow-up questions. But the point of a brief is to present the information without the distractions of things like annotations.

As for the presentation, I would approach it like a class lecture or appellate argument: have your outline, be prepared to be interrupted by digressions from the audience, and know how to snap right back to where you left off in the outline.
posted by crush-onastick at 4:30 AM on August 22, 2008

Short and concise. If there are areas where you feel annotations are necessary, have them so they are available for the policy makers' research staff to check and analyze. Put them at the end of the document- make the main document only for your points.


1- Cheese is yummy. [1]
2- Cheese is full of nutrients. [2]
3- We need more cheese!

(back page)

[1] - Link to survey that says that 80% of people love cheese.
[2] - Similar link to nutritiousness.
posted by gjc at 4:56 AM on August 22, 2008

Big cheeses like your cheese don't usually have time to read long, involved documents. Keep it short and sweet, giving him/her only what information is necessary. The rule of thumb around here is to keep a brief down to two pages.

Here are the headings I usually use:

1) Issue (summarize in one sentence)
2) Background (What is this issue, why should cheese care about it? 3-4 bullet points at most)
3) Considerations (what's changed that makes the briefing necessary? 3-4 bullet points)
4) Financial considerations (what financial impact could this have? 2-3 bullet points)
5) Options (offer three solutions to the problem, with pros and cons for each. 3-4 bullet points)
6) Recommendation (suggest one of the three solutions as the best one)
7) Sign off (make the big cheese agree or disagree with the recommendation)

Good luck!
posted by LN at 5:51 AM on August 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

I've only done it in grad school classes, but the format LN describes above is pretty much exactly what we were taught.
posted by punkbitch at 6:25 AM on August 22, 2008

posted by boo_radley at 6:34 AM on August 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You make your recommendation more persuasive by introducing it as the governing thought of your document (your main message, and the statement you lead off with), not by burying it at the end.

If you want to be persuasive, and you usually do unless your objective is to merely report facts, the worst mistake you can make is to write the brief in the same structure that you used to think about the issue. That is to say, the thinking happens deductively; we assimilate all the little bits of evidence we've gathered and form conclusions. But when you want to turn around and communicate all that thinking to someone else -- and convince them that you're right -- you need to do it inductively, in a way that prompts questions from the reader.

First, write your introduction. It ought to include, as LN says, a one sentence statement about the issue or situation, and something the reader will accept as true. Then, a comment on the statement, which the reader will also accept (this step can be repeated if there are comments on the comment). Lastly, a question prompted by the situation and comment(s). Your proposed solution to the question is the governing thought -- in this case, your recommendation. The ordering of these is not really sequential, and you should arrange them depending on your message and how receptive your reader is likely to be.

Goofy example introduction (and way simplified): [STATEMENT] There is a national shortage of aged sharp cheddar. [COMMENT] America's cheddar reserves are rapidly being depleted and the costs of imported cheddar are skyrocketing. [QUESTION (ISSUE TO RESOLVE)] We must find a way to ensure that future generations of Americans have access to ample quantities of reasonably priced cheddar cheese [GOVERNING THOUGHT (YOUR RECOMMENDATION)] We should find ways to encourage more people to become cheese farmers

Think of your task in writing the brief as building a pyramid from the top down rather than bottom up. In essence, you start the document with your recommendation, as above. This will naturally prompt a question in the reader's mind -- in the above example, "Why?" You've piqued the reader's interest by starting with a statement that makes the reader want to know more. So you begin working on the next level of your pyramid, which will have several "legs" (ok, pyramids don't have legs, but work with me here), each of which directly supports your recommendation. The first leg might be "The shortage will end quickly if we have more cheese farmers" which prompts a new question in the reader's mind, "How do you know?" Now you work your way toward the bottom of the pyramid, where you present all the detailed info you have to support this first leg. Once you've proven to the reader that more cheese farmers will reduce the shortage, you start on the second leg, "We can easily attract more cheese farmers" and go on to support that point in the same way. Then a third leg, "Other options are less effective or not feasible" And so on. You usually want 3-5 legs to your pyramid.

Another advantage of using this structure, besides capturing and holding the reader's attention, and letting him know up front what your recommendations are, is that it helps you to spot flaws in your own reasoning, because it forces you to support your statements.

You can learn more about this structure in "The Minto Pyramid Principle," a privately published "kit" that includes a text, a workbook, and a video. It costs a bit more than a compact car, and for a book on writing it is dry as all get-out, but it is the definitive book on effectively structuring your written communications.

Sorry for very, very long post. I'm on my third glass of merlot and it probably shows...
posted by Bixby23 at 10:46 AM on August 22, 2008

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