A briefing note is a short paper (2-3 pages) that quickly and effectively informs a decision-maker about an issue. A useful briefing note distills often complex information into a short, well- structured document. You are to write a briefing note, as though you were a director within the civil service (Federal Ministry of Health). You are to provide your minister with a note detailing a situation that has arisen within the media overnight.
This purpose of this note is to present public sector writing practices for briefing notes. The focus is on both style, context, and content. Although style and technique are important when writing for public sector audiences, it is an appreciation of the context that will distinguish you as a writer of superior briefing notes.
When preparing your note, you must consider the following:
– Why has this note been requested? Why is the Minister dealing with this now?
– Given the purpose, context and scenario, what exactly does the Minister really need to
know? What is the strategy, the game plan here?
– Have I identified the various actors or issues or options; outlined the stated and unstated
agendas; and captured the strategic considerations?
– What is the bottom line? Have I identified or positioned “the goods” right up front in the note?
– Where are the pitfalls for the Minister? What is missing? What else is missing? Who else
should I be talking to, obtaining intelligence from, consulting with?
– Would I be confident walking into this event/meeting with this note as my script?
– Is the level of detail I am providing appropriate to the subject and situation at this time? Is
every word and paragraph essential? What can I edit out?
-What is a briefing?
• Briefings, whether in the form of briefing notes, longer
briefing papers, or oral briefings, are used to keep
decision makers informed about the issues they are
responsible for. In government, briefings are the principal
means of communication between government managers
and their ministers (or other senior officials).
• The demands of government these days are such that
senior officials must constantly learn and retain
information about an enormous range of topics and
issues, which change rapidly. The only way they can do
this is to rely on concise, clear, reliable briefings.
-Who are they written for?
Briefing notes are typically written for those senior-level decision-makers who:
• have to keep track of many, often unrelated, issues;
• may not be familiar with the issues and may not have any
• for whatever reason, cannot spend time doing their own
• need a capsule version of the key points and
considerations about an issue
-What are the characteristics of a good BN?
The most valuable BN is clear, concise and easy to read. To succeed, a briefing note should be:
• short: one to two pages, and always as short as possible
• concise: a short document isn’t necessarily concise; concise
means every word is used as efficiently as possible
• clear: keep it simple and to the point; always keep your reader
firmly in mind and include only what matters to that reader
• reliable: the information in a briefing note must be accurate,
sound and dependable; any missing information or questions
about the information should be pointed out
• readable: use plain language and design your BN for
maximum readability (use white space, subheadings, lists, font, and other means of making reading easier)
Before you start writing, be sure your are clear about
• why you’re writing the BN (your purpose)
• who you’re writing the BN for (your reader)
• what that person most needs to know
• the points you will cover
• how you will structure your information
How is a BN structured?
The most important point to remember about the structure of
briefing notes is that they have three main parts:
• THE PURPOSE (usually stated as the issue, topic or purpose)
• A SUMMARY OF THE FACTS (what this section contains and the headings used will be determined by the purpose of the briefing note)
• THE CONCLUSION (this may be a conclusion, a recommendation or other advice, or both)
• These three main parts are presented under some or
all of the following section headings. Remember, any
briefing note you write will only have the sections that
are relevant to your purpose and audience.
• A concise statement of the issue, proposal or problem.
This section should explain in one or two lines why the BN
matters to the reader. It sets out in the form of a question
or a statement what the rest of the note is about.
• Begin the note with a clear statement identifying the
purpose of the note. Why is the Minister reading this?
This is a preferred approach, particularly if you are
presenting options and a recommendation because you
will alert the reader right up front that this is a “decision”
• Alternatively, think of this as your B.L.U.F. : Bottom Line
• The Background section begins with the most recent
developments (rather than a chronological ordering of events
culminating in the issue of the day). The purpose is not so
much to provide a chronology of events but to identify and
frame issues and problems.
• The details the reader needs in order to understand what
follows (how a situation arose, previous decisions/problems,
actions leading up to the current situation).
• Typically this section gives a brief summary of the history of the
topic and other background information. What led up to this
problem or issue? How has it evolved? Do not repeat
information that you’re including in the Current Status section.
• Describes only the current situation, who is involved, what
is happening now, the current state of the matter, issue,
• Key Considerations are an outline of the variables to be taken
into consideration regarding the issue. The various “sides of
the story” are presented.
• A summary of important facts, considerations, developments—
everything that needs to be considered now.
− While you will have to decide what to include and what to leave
out, this section should be as unbiased as possible.
− Your aim is to present all the details required for the reader to be
informed or to make an informed decision.
− Keep the reader’s needs uppermost in your mind when selecting
and presenting the facts.
− Remember to substantiate any statements with evidence and to
double check your facts.
Options & Rationale:
• Basically, observations about the key considerations and
what they mean; a concise description either of the
options and sometimes their pros and cons or of what will
• They represent the writer’s opinion or a conclusion that
flows from the preceding sections, without necessarily
presenting a comprehensive or balanced case. Key
Considerations and Conclusions or Next Steps are often
used as a “softer” way of presenting choices and
Options & Rationale:
• Key and relevant strategic issues: avoid being grandiose and
not every issue relates to the unity of the country.
• What options might exist, real options not what has been
called the Phony Three in which there is only one option and
the others are not viable. If no options exist, say so.
• What the risks are that are mitigated or might emerge from the
issue and why.
• Feasibility of approach.
• Relevant costs: if there is a detailed capital proposal, a briefing
note can only summarize attached detailed documentation.
• Communications issues: this focuses on the process of
• Your recommendation is a formal, balanced and objective
presentation of the choices and preferred course of action
that takes into everything presented.
• It should offer the best and most sound advice you can
offer. Make sure the recommendation is clear, direct and
substantiated by the facts you have put forward.
After you have drafted your BN, use the
following questions as an editing guide:
• Is the purpose of the briefing note clear?
• Is the language simple, economical and clear?
• Is everything there that needs to be there?
• Is anything there that isn’t essential to the purpose?
• Is the BN easy to read, understand and remember?
• Do the sections lead logically from one to another?
• Is the BN designed so that it is inviting to the reader?
• Is there a good balance between white spaces and text?
• Has the briefing note been carefully edited and
After you have drafted your BN, use the
following questions as an editing guide:
• Why has this note been requested? Why is the Minister dealing with this
• Given the purpose, context and scenario, what exactly does the Minister
really need to know? What is the strategy, the game plan here?
• Have I identified the various actors or issues or options; outlined the
stated and unstated agendas; and captured the strategic considerations?
• What is the bottom line? Have I identified or positioned “the goods” right
up front in the note?
• Where are the pitfalls for the Minister? What is missing? What else is
missing? Who else should I be talking to, obtaining intelligence from,
• Would I be confident walking into this event/meeting with this note as my
• Is the level of detail I am providing appropriate to the subject and
situation at this time? Is every word and paragraph essential? What can I
• Assume your first draft will be too long, verbose and
bureaucratic. Avoid all three by rigorously & ruthlessly
editing & revising.
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