In this article Jeremy Swan, Public Affairs Manager (Policy Impact), gives some tips on writing briefing notes for a policy audience.
Briefing notes can be a really great tool for influencing policy makers. But if you’ve not written one before, it can be hard to know where to start. In this post, I’ll provide a quick overview of what briefing notes are, why they are useful and – most importantly – how you can write a good one.
The ideal briefing note is a punchy two-page summary of a specific topic, with a set of practical recommendations that the reader can act on. You’re looking to bring policy makers up to speed quickly on an issue that may be new to them.
Since most policy makers aren’t specialists, it’s a good idea to write in plain English and avoid jargon where possible. The point isn’t to provide a comprehensive and detailed overview at this stage, it’s to offer an easily-digestible introduction. After this, you may get the opportunity to discuss the issue face-to-face or present a ‘deep dive’ paper. But first, you need to pique their interest.
Why should you write one?
Simply put, the answer is because they are really useful. Policy makers are often short on time and have many things competing for their attention. A well-written briefing note, which lands on the desk of the right person at the right time, can help your messages cut through the noise.
And unlike responding to a government consultation or providing evidence to a select committee, writing a briefing note is something you can undertake on a proactive basis. You don’t have to wait for someone to ask for your views, you can look to carve out your own opportunities.
But perhaps the best reason for writing one is that policy makers ask for them. As a public affairs team, we interact regularly with policy makers and this request comes up again and again. So having a briefing note that is ready to go – oven ready, if you will – really helps.
Fancy a cuppa?
Personally I find it helpful, when writing a briefing note, to imagine myself discussing it with someone over a cup of coffee. It needs to flow naturally, get to the point quickly and provoke some sort of reaction.
If I can’t imagine doing that, then the chances are something needs to change. The language might be too technical or the narrative too convoluted. Whatever it is, find it and fix it.
Six top tips for a tip-top briefing
- Start with an executive summary – this is the most important part of any briefing note. Set out your key points and ‘asks’ in this section to grab the reader’s attention, so they read the rest of the paper.
- Find your angle – you could write about new research that has implications for public policy, or you could draw on your expertise and experiences to contribute to policy debates. Your professional experience counts for a lot in policy debates, you don’t always have to have to come to the table with groundbreaking research. In fact, policy makers are often more interested in what the academic consensus is on particular issues, so if you can synthesise the existing research base then this can be extremely useful. Whether or not you lobby for a particular policy decision is up to you. In some cases you may feel that the evidence points clearly to one outcome, in which case, tell them. In other cases, you may prefer to present policy makers with a range of options that have pros and cons attached to them.
- Put yourself in their shoes – ask yourself, why should your readers care? Think about what interests them. If they are an MP, does this issue affect their constituents? How is your work relevant to their personal interests?
- Use hyperlinks – it’s a good idea to include some links so that people can find out more if they want to, or check out facts for themselves, but don’t go overboard. As a general rule, you should avoid academic-style references.
- Have a call to action – your briefing note must have some kind of call to action. What do you want your readers to do? You need to offer policy makers solutions, don’t just identify the problems.
- Don’t forget your contact details – make sure you include up-to-date contact information at the end, so people can follow up with you later.
A more detailed guide on writing briefing notes for a policy audience can be found on the public affairs intranet page. You can also download a briefing note template from that page to help you get started.
You can find previous examples of briefing notes on our website.
Finally, if you are planning any kind of policy engagement activity then it’s a good idea to drop us a line in the public affairs team at firstname.lastname@example.org before you get started.