Three Tips for Writing Briefing Papers Successfully

As a subject matter expert, you are constantly asked to summarize your work. Rarely do you have the opportunity to “geek out” and share everything you know with someone who really cares. One colleague was so frustrated with this phenomenon he told me it felt like his whole life was an exercise in the executive summary. Sound familiar?

Briefing Papers

We summarize our work in executive summaries, blog posts, presentations, abstracts, briefing papers. Of these, briefing papers are possibly the most difficult, for a variety of reasons. First, they are high-stakes. People do not request briefing papers to fill space in a newsletter. Senior management relies on briefing papers either to represent our organization and its position or to make difficult decisions.

We are tapped to write briefing papers because we are the expert. So briefing papers might be reviewed by a colleague, but they do not go through the chain of review that a published document like an executive summary or an abstract would. We’re on our own, writing to a high-level person in our organization about a really important topic.

Perhaps the bottom line as to why briefing papers are so challenging is the distance between the writer and the reader. Briefing papers are written for senior management. Subject matter experts live in a different world. Bridging that gap is not easy, but here are three tips that can help you overcome all of these barriers and write briefing papers successfully.

  1. It’s not about what matters to you. We are all geeks who love our work. For me, that’s words; for you, it might be rocks, or birds, or fish. When we are given a chance to write about our work, we tend to geek out.

A briefing paper is not an opportunity to tell someone all the cool facts about your rocks, birds, or fish. Assume that either your reader knows those facts or that they are not important, and think one step ahead to why they matter.

  • Why does it matter that the word narration evolved from the Latin gnarrus meaning “to know?”
  • Why does it matter that shale has a Mohs scale rating of 3?
  • Why does it matter that the chipping sparrow belongs to the Spizella family?
  • Why does it matter that the pallid sturgeon can live up to 100 years?

Then delete the fact – remember, the reader already knows it, and develop the “why it matters” part.

  1. Write to your reader’s audience. With a few exceptions, briefing papers are not written for the person to whom they are addressed. Senior managers use briefing papers to address other audiences. Three cases are most common:

(a) The media – Managers receive phone calls and emails from journalists. Briefing papers serve as talking points for them to provide background information on a hot topic and convey our organization’s stance.

(b) Partner meetings – Managers attend meetings with representatives from other organizations and private stakeholders. Briefing papers help them state our position clearly, make them aware of opposing interests, and allow them to defend our position while maintaining the good will of our partners.

(c) Constituents – Managers have to answer to the people who invest in our organization, whether that be financially or through mutual interest. When we make a decision, managers have to defend it to stakeholders who are both more and less powerful than us. Briefing papers give them the information and the language to do so. 

  1. Ask about the paper’s purpose. Briefing papers usually have one of three purposes.
  • Sketch the basics – As the subject matter expert, you are expected to provide context for the current discussion. Remember what we said in tip (1). This paper is not about what matters to you; it’s about what matters in this context, to your reader’s audience. Get clarity about those before you start writing.

  • Offer alternatives –Organization have to make a decisions alone or in collaboration with their partners, and your manager will need to know the alternatives as well as the pros and cons associated with each. Start your paper with the context. What has led us to the point where we need to make a decision? Next outline the major obstacles, whether they be financial, political, or practical. Then you can proceed, fairly assessing each option. Conclude with a logistical statement about when and how the decision needs to be made.

  • Make a recommendation – As the subject matter expert, you may be asked to recommend a course of action. A useful strategy for doing so is the legal writing form IRAC – Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. Start with the issue, or the context. Again, this is the question, what has led us to the point where we need to make a decision. Then outline the rules guiding your decision, whether they be regulatory, policy-based, or standard procedure in your field. Apply the facts of your situation to the rules you just outlined, and then conclude with your decision.

Your organization may have a standard template for briefing papers or could call them by different names. I have seen terms such as “Informational Memorandum” or “Decisional Memorandum,” but a briefing paper by any other name is still a briefing paper. If the template does not seem to fall into any one of the categories we discussed, check with your colleagues to get a clear understanding of the document’s purpose.

I hope you find these tips useful. If you have any others to share, please do so. And if you found this article useful, please share it with your colleagues.


  1. Joseph M Gaffney says

    In re your 3-word climate-change challenge: Dry & Weary Land

    In re your diction, not “3 words or less,” but “3 or fewer words” or “no more than 3 words.”

    I have always benefited greatly from every one of your postings.

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