JeffBezos and Jack Dorsey are among the more successful CEOs who have banned PowerPoint, choosing instead to start meetings with attendees silently reading a paper document (aka a “backgrounder”).
As I explained in a previous article, replacing PowerPoint presentations with paper briefing documents is an incredible time saver and productivity-saver, so much so that banning PowerPoint might be the smartest thing you can think of. a leader can do.
What I did not provide, however, was a template for a backgrounder, and that is the purpose of this article. After reading this article, with a little practice you will be able to create a backgrounder that will quickly get your meeting to exactly where you want it.
I’ll start with the template, then give an example, and then explain exactly why the briefing paper makes the meeting shorter and smarter.
The oldest and most proven briefing document is what is sometimes referred to as an executive summary, which was developed and refined by Tom sant, who is undoubtedly the world’s leading expert in business proposals.
Summaries were originally developed to be the first page of a written selling proposition. Usually, key decision makers read only the summary, usually just before or at the start of a “go or no go” meeting.
I’ve written about executive summaries in the past, but here is a six-section template specifically designed to be used as a background document for an internal meeting meant to lead to a decision:
- The challenge. It defines “where we are now” and is always either a problem or an opportunity.
- The unwanted outcome. This defines “where we don’t want to be”: what will happen if the problem or opportunity is not addressed.
- The desired result. This defines “where we want to be” which obviously should be better than the unwanted outcome.
- The proposed solution. This defines what needs to be done to avoid the unwanted result and achieve the desired result.
- The risk eliminator. Why the proposed solution is likely to succeed and unlikely to fail.
- The call to action. The decision you want to make who will put the solution in 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 backgrounder on a single-spaced page. If the decision to be made is complex, each section may consist of two or three paragraphs.
Important: Do not exceed three single-spaced 12 point Times New Roman pages. One of the reasons it’s called a backgrounder is that it needs to be brief.
Also important : It must be a paper document and not an electronic one. The purpose of the briefing paper is to force participants to focus only on the issue you want to discuss. If you let people read on a screen, some of them will pretend to read it but actually read emails, etc. Sad but true.
OK, now that you have the basic template for a briefing paper, let’s see how you might write one for an internal meeting.
Scenario: You are the project manager of an engineering team carrying out a “mission critical” component. You need two more engineers to complete the project on time, but you don’t have the budget to hire them. To secure this budget, you need buy-in from decision-makers in other groups, because ultimately the money will have to come from their budgetary. So you call a meeting to fix the problem.
You will write six short paragraphs. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just provide the subject sentence of each paragraph, as it’s the structure and wording that is important, not the actual details you would put in each paragraph.
Here are the subject sentences for the six sections (paragraphs):
- “The Potrezebie project may be compromised in terms of its delivery date due to an unforeseen …” (the challenge)
- “If Potrezebie is delivered late, it will affect our ability to release Vebblefetzer 2.0 before the holiday season, which would negatively affect our revenue…” (the undesirable result)
- “Obviously, it is in all of our interests to get the Potrezebie project back on schedule …” (the desired result)
- “We are in a rapidly closing window of time where we can get Potrezebie back on schedule by hiring two more engineers …” (the proposed solution)
- “I already have four candidates in mind who have the skills we will need to integrate them quickly and make them productive …” (the risk remover)
- “To do this, we will have to immediately increase the staff budget of the Potrezebie project by 20%…” (call to action)
Why not PowerPoint?
One could argue that you could have created a PowerPoint presentation following this same structure. In this case, rather than a six paragraph backgrounder, you would probably have 30 slides (i.e. about five per section).
The PowerPoint presentation would have fewer words than the briefing paper because you would depend on your ability to explain, interpret or comment on each slide. The rule of thumb for PowerPoint presentations is one slide per minute, so the presentation will take about half an hour. Follow me here?
Importantly, however, the discussion in the middle of your presentation will only reflect the parts of the presentation that participants have already heard. The discussion will be based on incomplete information, in other words.
This is because since the initial slides identify an issue, there’s a good chance you’ll spend the first 10-15 minutes of the meeting just discussing “who’s to blame” for the issue, because that’s it. that everyone’s attention was initially directed.
So now your 30 minute presentation stretches for 60 minutes as it continues to fall into various ratholes and side discussions that are unrelated to what you are trying to accomplish which is getting that money. budget!
In fact, by the time you come to the decision you want to make, the meeting may be almost over or even have worked overtime! While things were “discussed,” you wasted about an hour of everyone’s time because you couldn’t drive the meeting to a decision.
Conduct the meeting
On the other hand, if you start the meeting with a briefing document, participants will skim over or read it carefully at the start of the meeting, which will take a maximum of two minutes. At the end of those five minutes, everyone in the meeting is now ready to discuss the budget issue – which is really important.
Now participants can (and probably will) ask questions about the first five paragraphs. However, because you’ve got everyone (literally) on the same page, these threads are less likely to fall into irrelevant rat holes.
So here’s how the two methods stand out:
With PowerPoint, the meeting spends 60 minutes on your presentation, and only the last few minutes (if any) focus on the decision you want to make.
With a briefing paper, the meeting spends two minutes reading and perhaps 18 minutes for an informed discussion that can lead to a decision.
By using a briefing instead of PowerPoint, you saved yourself (and everyone else in the meeting) about 40 minutes.
Multiply that by a conservative estimate of 500 meetings per year, and you’ve just freed up 20,000 minutes, which equates to 42 business days.–almost two full months.
To be fair, it will take you longer to write a briefing paper than it does to prepare a PowerPoint presentation. But consider, rather than just spark a discussion, you’ll be leading each meeting directly to the decision you want to make..