Getting Familiar with Briefing Notes

In a world where everything is moving at high speeds, the ability to summarize important information in a one- or two-page document, also known as briefing notes (briefs), can transform an individual into a highly desired commodity. Whether it be in the private sector or public sector, the ability to write effective briefs is a disappearing skill, but it is a skill that everyone can learn to do well.

Briefs play an important role as a communication tool because of their ability to communicate important information up the decision-making ladder in a quick and effective manner.  The purpose of briefs can include raising concerns, explaining ideas, providing advice, analyzing issues, and requesting feedback. Briefs will specifically focus on key facts, summarizing goals, challenges, and other important information, and they may slightly vary depending on the nature of a situation or the targeted audience.

Some of the most common types of briefs include decision notes, information notes, issue notes, and house notes. Decision notes are designed to present information around a particular policy issue, and they often provide multiple options for decision makers to choose from. Information notes provide key information about a particular policy, program, or area of government. Issues notes focus on summarizing specific issues that are of importance. House notes are a combination of the three previous notes, and they are typically written for high-ranking decision makers, but it is important to understand the purpose of the notes so that they can achieve their desired purpose.

To write the best possible brief, it is important to know your audience, as well as the issue and purpose behind it. The standard layout for briefs includes a summary of the issue, the current status of the issue, the strategic considerations of the issue, an overview of available recommendations and the implications of each outcome, and a conclusion that also includes any next steps. Often times, what makes for great briefs is the featured information and data from different sources—statistics that can help emphasize key ideas. That information and data can also be the difference between someone making the right decision and not the wrong decision, so getting it right is really important.

Although professional workshops that focus on writing briefs can often cost in excess of $1,000, there are ways to become better at writing briefs without dishing out large sums of money. In my opinion, post-secondary institutions are one of the best places to turn to when it comes to accessing publicly available resources, including on how to write briefs. The University of Waterloo published a guide titled Practical Guide To Writing Briefing Notes In The Government Of Canada in the summer of 2020 with the purpose of helping facilitate collaboration and mobilizing knowledge between various stakeholders and across different sectors. The twenty-page guide is designed to familiarize individuals with writing briefs in the public sector and everything it takes to put together a quality brief. The best part about briefs is that, even when their format changes, the core ideas of a brief always remain the same, and becoming familiar with these core ideas is how an individual becomes a desired commodity.