Brief the new kid well and they might even share their lunch with you

Do you remember your first day at school or your first job?

We’ve all been there. We came with fears, fantasies, and future possibilities. (Some of us came with attitude — I told my first teacher that I wasn’t going to sit on a ‘baby chair’.)

Some of us had big brothers and sisters to tell us what’s what and who’s who. Some of us had over-protective parents hovering above. Some of us surged into independence and never looked back. We all had a jumping-off point.

Image, Small boy on his first day of school.

Fears, fantasies, and future possibilities — every politician starts somewhere. Image by jutheanh / CC0

Parliament’s playground put to the test

Once the new term begins some weeks after the election, a new class of ministers will take their seats in New Zealand’s parliament. Some will be diving into a new role — shiny eyed, nervous laughter, brand new lunchboxes. Others will already be playground princes and princesses, holding court and grooming the corgis.

Either way, they all need a point to jump from — in this case the written and verbal briefings they get from their new portfolio ministries.

The dictionary says ‘brief’ is ‘to instruct or inform someone thoroughly in preparation for a job or task’, and its other meaning is ‘of short duration, not lasting for long’.  Both aspects are crucial here.

A new minister needs to know, in concise form:

The initial written ‘briefing for incoming ministers’ is part of a wider series of conversations and documents, but is the first introduction to the ministry. And first impressions count.

Image, The Beehive, Wellington.

Where the new kids will sit. Wellington’s Beehive. Image by AM Chisnall

Please the teacher with your best work

If you’re writing the briefing, here’s what we know works best.

Understand your reader

Show you’ve thought about the minister. Are they experienced or new to the portfolio? What questions do you anticipate? What are their priorities? What agreements have they entered into? What are they hearing and reading from other sources? What are their top challenges?

Understanding your reader is the key to developing the right content — no overlaps and no gaps.

Have a clear purpose

Your briefing should clearly explain at the beginning what it is for and how the minister can use the information. Explain how your briefing document is organised and put the most important information at the top.

Write powerfully

Tell the story of your organisation with powerful messages that are easy to understand and act on. Put the main messages at the beginning of paragraphs and draw attention to them with frequent informative headings.  Look at the headings alone — are they strong enough to carry the story on their own? (Sometimes your busy minister may only skim the briefing.) Write active voice sentences with precise verbs and familiar words. Write with a human tone and proofread carefully.

It’s good to have friends at school — get in with the in-crowd and hopefully no one will steal your lunch.

Get expert help if you need it

Write can help you at any stage of preparing your briefing — at the thinking and planning stage, or with writing, editing, or proofreading.

If you’re planning an A3 report, check out our specialist A3 workshop.

The State Services Commission also has a guide to writing briefings for incoming ministers

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