Jeff  Bezos and Jack Dorsey are among the highly successful CEOs who've banned PowerPoint, electing instead to start meetings with participants silently reading a hard-copy document (a.k.a. a "briefing document").

As I've explained in a previous post, replacing PowerPoint presentations with hard-copy briefing documents is an incredible timesaver and productivity boost, so much so that banning PowerPoint might be the smartest thing a leader can do.

What I didn't provide, however, was a template for a briefing document, and that's the point of this post. After reading this post, you will be able, with a little practice, to create a briefing document that will quickly drive your meeting exactly where you want it to go.

I'll start with the template, then give an example, and then explain exactly why the briefing document makes the meeting shorter and smarter. 

The Template

The most time-honored and reality-tested briefing document is what's sometimes called an  executive summary, which was developed and refined by Tom Sant, who is without question the world's top expert in sales proposals.

Executive summaries were originally developed to be the first page of a written sales proposal. Usually top decision-makers only read the executive summary, usually right before or at the start of a "go or no go" meeting.

I've written about executive summaries in the past, but here's a six-section template specifically customized for use as a briefing document for an internal meeting that's intended to drive toward a decision:

  1. The Challenge. This defines "where we are now" and is always either a problem or an opportunity.
  2. The Undesired Outcome. This defines "where we don't want to be"--what will happen if the problem or opportunity is not addressed.
  3. The Desired Outcome. This defines "where we do want to be," which should obviously be better than the undesired outcome.
  4. The Proposed Solution. This defines what must be done to avoid the undesired outcome and achieve the desired one.
  5. The Risk Remover. Why the proposed solution is likely to succeed and unlikely to fail.
  6. The Call to Action. The decision you want made that will put the solution into motion to achieve the desired outcome.

Typically, each of the six sections consists of a single paragraph, which means you should be able to get the briefing document onto one single-spaced page. If the decision to be made is complex, each section might have two or three paragraphs.

Important: Do not exceed three single-space pages using 12-point Times New Roman. One reason it's called a briefing document is that it must be, well, brief.

Also important: It must be a hard-copy document, not an electronic one. The point of the briefing document is to force participants to focus single-mindedly on the issue you want discussed. If you let people read on a screen, some of them will pretend to do so but actually read email, etc. Sad but true.

The Example

OK, now that you've got the basic template for a briefing document, let's see how you might write one for an internal meeting.

Scenario: You're the project leader of an engineering team making a "mission critical" component. You need two more engineers to complete the project on time but have no budget to hire them. To secure that budget, you need buy-in from decision-makers in other groups, because ultimately the money will have to come from their budgets. So, you call a meeting to work the issue.

You're going to write six short paragraphs. For simplicity's sake, I'll just provide the topic sentence of each paragraph, because it's the structure and wording that's important, not the actual details that you'd put into each paragraph.

Here are the topic sentences for the six sections (paragraphs):

  1. "The Potrezebie project may be in jeopardy in terms of its delivery date because of an unforeseen circumstance ... " (the challenge)
  2. "If Potrezebie is delivered late, it will affect our ability to release Vebblefetzer 2.0 prior to the holiday season, which would adversely affect our revenue ... " (the undesired outcome)
  3. "Obviously, it's in all our interests to get the Potrezebie project back on schedule ... " (the desired outcome)
  4. "We are in a rapidly closing window of time in which we can get Potrezebie back on schedule by hiring two additional engineers ... " (the proposed solution)
  5. "I already have four candidates in mind who have the skill set we'll need to quickly get them on board and productive ... " (the risk remover)
  6. "To accomplish this, we'll need to immediately increase the personnel budget for the Potrezebie project by 20 percent ... " (the call to action)

Why Not PowerPoint?

One could argue that you could have created a PowerPoint presentation following that same structure. In that case, rather than a six-paragraph briefing document, you'd probably have 30 slides (i.e., about five per section).

The PowerPoint presentation would have fewer words than the briefing document, because you'd be depending on your ability to explain, interpret, or comment upon each slide. The rule of thumb for PowerPoint presentations is one slide per minute, so the presentation will take about a half-hour. Follow me so far?

However--and this is important--discussion that takes place in the middle of your presentation will reflect only the parts of the presentation that the attendees have already heard. Discussion will be based on incomplete information, in other words.

Indeed, since initial slides identify a problem, there's a very good chance you'll spend the first 10 to 15 minutes of the meeting simply discussing "who's to blame" for the problem, because that's where everyone's focus has been initially directed.

So now your 30-minute presentation is stretching to 60 minutes, because it keeps falling down various rat-holes and into side discussions that aren't germane to what you're trying to accomplish, which is to get that budget money!

In fact, by the time you get to the decision you want made, the meeting may be nearly over or even have run overtime! While stuff got "discussed," you've pretty much wasted an hour of everyone's time, because you couldn't drive the meeting toward the decision.

Drive the Meeting

By contrast, if you begin the meeting with a briefing document, attendees will either skim it or read it over closely at the beginning of the meeting, which will take two minutes at most. At the end of that five minutes, everyone in the meeting is now ready to discuss the budget issue--which is what's actually important.

Now, the attendees may (and probably will) ask some questions about the first five paragraphs. However, because you've gotten everyone (literally) on the same page, those discussions are less likely to fall down irrelevant rat-holes.

So here's how the two methods shake out:

With PowerPoint, the meeting spends 60 minutes on your presentation with only the last few minutes (if that) focused on the decision you want made.

With a briefing document, the meeting spends two minutes on reading and maybe 18 minutes on an informed discussion that's likely to reach a decision.

By using a briefing document rather than PowerPoint, you've saved yourself (and everyone else in the meeting) around 40 minutes.

Multiply that times a conservatively estimated 500 meetings a year, and you just freed up 20,000 minutes which comes out to 42 workdays--almost two full months.

To be fair, it's going to take you more time to craft a briefing document than slap together a PowerPoint presentation. But consider, rather than merely sparking discussion, you'll be driving every meeting directly at the decision you want made.

And that's priceless.

Published on: Oct 31, 2019
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