Don’t ever fabricate anything in your briefing reports. Before you consider writing something that is not true, or is deliberately misleading, think about what the consequences could look like as a newspaper headline. For example, imagine a photo of yourself in the Ottawa Citizen under the headline “Bureaucrat says he had to invent account of business summit because report was due before event.” An October 2012 report to Ottawa City Council, written by the economic development director and formally submitted by the city manager, contains detailed praise for an event that hadn’t yet happened. Read the Ottawa Citizen story here.
Theresa McKeown of PublicSector Writing.com designed and delivers the 90-minute audio-video webinars online. Enroll individually, or as a group, and participate from your office (most webinars begin at 1:30 pm Eastern Standard Time). If you would prefer a customized webinar, using your organization’s issues and content, contact us by email at PSwriter@publicsectorwriting.com or by telephone at 1-800-613-9121.
How to Write Excellent Briefing Notes offered May 7, 2013 and June 3, 2013. To enroll online Click Here.
Advanced Workshop in Writing & Editing Briefing Notes offered May 21, 2013 and June 9, 2013. To enroll online Click Here.
How Access to Information & Freedom of Information Affect Your Work as a Public Servant will next be offered in the fall of 2013.
Understanding Government Machinery: Strategic Relationships, Stakeholders and Agendas will next be offered in the fall of 2013.
Comments from participants in previous webinars:
- We attended your webinar on “How to Write Excellent Briefing Notes”. The team found it very useful. First time we’ve taken a webinar with this organization. Very impressed. JW
- Great webinar – very informative and practical. I really appreciate your frankness and thanks for sharing your experience, insights, and those resourceful links in the deck. AY
- What an excellent session on “How to Write Excellent Briefing Notes” Webinar, I found the government perspective excellent. The entire course was very useful to me. This workshop was amazing. JW
- Thank you so much for the wonderful presentation. Excellent and effective presenters are a rarity. LMP
- Thank you for your presentation. It helped refine my thinking for preparing BNs; it will probably help my writing in general. And was it ever timely! A couple of points that stuck: A BN can be viewed as a measure of your expertise – it was the first time I’d heard that but I think I was biased that way already. The second point was that it is my responsibility to be understood and to get feedback. Thank you for those too. ASL
- Thank you so much for the webinar today. I found it valuable, not only to be more concise with the writing of Council Reports and Briefs but also to help us coach our senior management team on how to write a briefing note on rather large documents and reports that we are expected to read and disseminate. LC
- Great job on the webinar! Your presentation was very practical & easily applied to my work. PS
- Thank you so much for your presentation on how to write excellent briefing notes. Having recently transitioned from a Masters student to a new employee in the public service, I can identify with many of the challenges in adapting personal writing styles to the public sector context. FS
- I wanted to thank you for an excellent session this morning. You clarified many points I was pondering and provided my new mantra … Edit, edit again and yet again. It was time well spent. BR
- Thank you so much for your presentation. I found it very informative and straight forward. I deal with issues around clarification and writing styles, every time I am tasked with developing a Briefing Note. DS
- Thank you very much for sharing your expertise this afternoon, I found it very helpful. NT
- I appreciated the presentation today, especially the discipline of maintaining focus on the objective of the document and not getting side tracked with lower value content. MB
- This was my first webinar and found your presentation and information very helpful. It was fantastic! CS
Coaching advice to a public sector Manager: Push back. Don’t let anyone push you into political situations without giving you all the information you need.
The Situation: Unbeknownst to the Manager, one of her senior executives met with a stakeholder who then sent a document (about commitments made at the meeting) to the senior executive’s office as “heads up” that it was going to be tabled at the next public meeting in three days. The senior executive’s assistant sent an email to the stakeholder (copying the Manager) telling the stakeholder to meet with the Manager to resolve some of the inaccuracies in the document. The stakeholder called the Manger to set up the meeting.
Coaching Advice: The Manager asked PublicSectorWriting.com for advice and was coached to “push back” as it’s ALWAYS POLITICAL. The Manager did not brief the senior executive, was not debriefed following the meeting, has never seen the document and does not know what happened at the meeting. The stakeholder wants to advance her agenda, the “heads up” is a mere foil, the executive assistant does not want to be the one who ends up being responsible for the “inaccuracies” in the document. The senior executive can later report to his superior that he told one of his Managers to “fix it” and she failed to do so.
How to Push Back: The Manager could tell the senior executive’s assistant (by email so the Manager has an audit trail) that she does not know what happened at the meeting, what the inaccuracies are, what the executive wants to say instead, or what the organization’s messages are about this issue. Tell the executive’s assistant she will not meet with the stakeholder without knowing this, as the tabling is in three days. The executive’s office must tell the stakeholder not to table the document.
A graduate student emailed asking if Briefing Notes and Memos can be used interchangeably. The answer is “yes and no”; different organizations have different practices. Here are the Differences between Briefing Notes and Memoranda, in printable pdf format.
George Orwell’s Rules, from “Politics and the English Language“, (1946), are timeless.
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Follow these rules and you may well be reversing the decline of the English language . As Orwell explained:
“It is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.”
Why would you want us to create an online password-protected Resource Centre for your organization? The answer is in the question: “What do I do? I’ve just been tasked with writing a QP card (or options briefing note, or Memorandum to the Minister)”.
An online Resource Centre will:
- Provide podcast and written training materials to improve the quality of the products your staff produce;
- Provide templates and examples using content specific to your organization (you tell us which key issues you want covered in the examples, we research and write the examples);
- Present detailed information on How It Works – Question Period; or the Memoranda to Cabinet process; or Cabinet briefing; or whatever it is you want included in your Resource Centre;
- Offer examples and advice on how to find your department’s key messages or the Minister’s preferred responses;
- All in a password-protected on line-site that can only be accessed by us and the people you give your password to. And it can be updated over time to meet your organization’s needs.
There are even more reasons, like, it’s very cost effective and provides value for money – think of it an as always available training session. All material is clearly identified as examples for training purposes. Your users can download & copy the material or leave it on our password protected site and and access it whenever needed. And we have more expertise in this area than most do – more than 20 years experience in Briefing, Cabinet and Parliamentary Affairs service delivery and management.
Although the focus is not public sector writing specifically, Purdue University has a great Online Writing Lab (OWL) offering free writing resources and instructional material. You’ll find everything from job search writing to all you need to know about use of semi colons.
The OWL Site Map provides a bird’s eye view of resources for writing and teaching writing; research; grammar and mechanics; style guides; english as a second language (ESL); and job search and professional writing.
All the material is copyrighted by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University but individuals and teachers can use it.
Having just conducted 103 assessments of students entering a Master’s degree program, here’s the bottom line. How you communicate is a measure of your credibility. It makes an immediate impression on the listener or reader. No matter how brilliant the content may be, it is diminished if your communication skills are lacking. Flip that around – if your presentation is masterful, even if the content is not brilliant, you can make a positive impression. Be clear, direct and “ruthless’ in your own self-assessment. Have you ever noticed, there seems to be a correlation between unrealistic self assessment and not being able communicate very effectively? Or that people who have the most masterful presentation, often wonder if they could have done a better job? If your audience doesn’t understand what you’re communicating, it’s your fault, not theirs, according to Seth Godin.
Often all we see are news clips of opposition and government members sparring in daily Question Period. The best way to really understand how Question Period works (and why you are writing Question Period Notes for your Minister) is to watch videocasts of an entire session of daily Question Period.
The Legislative Assembly of the Province of British Columbia provides archived videocasts of proceedings. For example, here’s a link to the out the April 29, 2010 Oral Question Period proceedings in the BC Legislature. It leads with Opposition Leader Carole James’ question on the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) which is answered by the Honourable Colin Hansen, Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier.
Note that Ms. James reads from briefing notes for her original and two supplemental questions. Although the Minister of Finance does not read from notes, you may observe him looking down (perhaps at notes) on the second supplemental. You might also observe, as the camera pulls back into longer views, the briefing materials on the Minister’s desk. Later on, in reponse to the Member from Stikine’s question, the Minister of Finance reads from notes some quotes from the forest sector. The content most likely will have been provided by departmental officials and staff in the Minister’s office.
I know you’ll hear that decisions are not driven by media reports, however, the reality is that the day starts with delivery of the latest media clips to Minister’s Offices (MOs) and senior executives offices. Early in the morning, MO staff are meeting with departmental communications and parliamentary affairs staff to review media clips and request the production of Question Period cards and briefing notes.
So when you are writing any briefing product for the Minister or Deputy Minister, accept that they operate in a media driven, political environment. Take that into consideration when presenting options and considerations; tell them what anticipated media reaction will be and why.
When I first read Dr. Douglas Hartle’s case study, I thought it would be a great script for the BBC television series Yes Minister. Then I became a senior official in Ottawa, drafting MCs and attending interdepartmental consultation meetings, often reminiscent of Hartle’s story.
As public servants are sworn by the Oath of Secrecy not to divulge how particular Cabinet decisions were made, Hartle wrote what he described as an attempt to convey, in fictional form, the essence of the MC consultation and decision making process as seen by a former senior bureaucrat. It’s a popular case study in public administration and Canadian politics courses.
The case study begins with the inner thoughts of the senior official who drafted the MC, on his way to a Privy Council meeting. “I looked upon the meeting as anticlimactic and the hours of work spent in getting the words on paper as largely wasted. But pride in affecting a political decision is, as every bureaucrat knows, at least as satisfying as the pride in the acknowledged authorship of an official document…..The draft might be ridiculous. But does not the pride of the professional lie in doing a ridiculous act well?”
It’s an informative as well as entertaining read. The Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) has published it as “Case Study Ethics 1.29“. (cost is $5). There’s a limited preview at “Google Books“, if you are curious.
“If officials can’t even get my correspondence right, how can I trust them to manage the Immigration program?”
When I heard a Canadian Minister of Immigration say that to the Deputy Minister, it piqued my curiosity. What if officials approached the task of writing as a measure of their competence or credibility; how different might their attitudes and products be?
I share that exchange when I’m delivering public sector training programs because most officials don’t have first hand experience of how Ministers think. Unless you’ve worked at the top of organizations, around Ministers’ and Deputy Ministers’ offices or regularly attended meetings of the federal Treasury Board committe of Ministers. But those are other stories, for other posts or trainings.
For now, remember that practice and training can improve public sector writing. What else can it do? Ask yourself, could how I write be a metaphor for how I script my life? Do I pay attention, am I clear and direct? Do I get the point? Can I effectively communicate the point of it all, to myself and others?
U Vic English professor Susan Doyle has a great website “English 302: Writing for Government“. You’ll find topics such as Characteristics of Good Government Writing; How to Write Briefing Notes, Correspondence, Press Releases, Summaries etc. The course gives students practice in writing tasks commonly performed by government communications professionals or content specialists. Check out the related resources on the website.
The University of Victoria’s Hypertext Writer’s Guide was originally prepared for students in the English Department. The Guide is an introduction to the process of writing and to the study of literature. It has detailed information on wide ranging topics such as how to write essays or writing clear sentences, as well as details on subjects like mistakes with modifiers. Check out the Index or the Table of Contents.
If the person reading your briefing note doesn’t understand the issues, blame yourself. Although it’s easier to say it’s the reader’s fault, my friend Kirsten Farris reminded me: as the writer, you are responsible for the response you get. That’s one of the presuppositions of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP): “the meaning of your communication is the response (feedback) you get”.
So, for example, if you write a briefing note or a blog post, and the reader has to ask all sorts of questions, you are responsible for having missed something.
And, according to marketing guru Seth Godin, if you are a student in my class and you don’t learn what I’m teaching, I’ve let you down. So once again, if you don’t get what I mean by all this, it’s my fault!