Policy Brief

Tips For Good Communication

Your audience – especially policy makers – seldom have the time to read through all the literature related to a specific policy question. To make well-informed decisions, they rely on short, tightly written briefs that quickly and cogently relay the important policy facts, questions, and arguments about an issue.

No matter what method you use to communicate with your stakeholders, you can use these tips on how to communicate through engaging briefs.

The following information is a summary of a lecture “The Art and Craft of Policy Briefs

What is a Policy Brief?

A concise presentation of:

  • a problem
  • its context
  • and the actions and recommendation for applying this policy or programme

The brief should be 2 to 4 pages long and easy to understand without specialized knowledge or additional reading –unless that specialized knowledge can be assumed for the particular audience you are writing for.

The emphasis here is in communication which is not the same as information.

The goal is to prompt change (in laws, administrative policies and regulations, funding priorities, organizational practices, etc.). In writing a policy brief you have to be clear about what kind of change might be considered and who is the audience.

What do you know about the audience?

  • Do they have technical knowledge or background?
  • What is their political or organizational culture?
  • Which constrains are they working in?
  • Have they been exposed to the issue before?
  • Are they open to change or maybe a little resistant?
  • What is the “hook”? The message that is going to be the most engaging for your audience.
  • What background information do they need in order to follow your argument?

Elements of policy brief:

  1. Aim
  2. The description of the problem
  3. Recommendations
  4. Title

Write the aim first in just one or two sentences, because every part of the brief should be relevant to the aim.

  • Why is it an important issue for the audience?
  • Use data to convey the extent of the problem. And if there are not sufficient data, it is prob- ably because the capacity to collect data is part of the problem.
  • What has been tried? What solutions have been already tried and how effective existing policies and programmes have been.
  • And finally what are some options for change? You may want to lay out the policies options with pros and cons. And do not forget the option of not changing.
  • Good recommendations are backed with evidence and flow from your argument.
  • What effects can be anticipated? Keep in mind that concrete ideas are easier to remember than abstract ones. Abstract recommendations may also be open to different interpreta- tions.
  • Are your recommendations appropriate for your audience? Take time to get feedback, re- view and ideas from relevant stakeholders.

Make sure that the title is both engaging and informative.

Organizing your policy brief

You can organize your policy brief to make it a more powerful communication tool and make it more likely that your reader can pick out the important information even if they are just skimming it.

  • Start with your conclusions. Tell the readers in the first paragraph where you are taking them.
  • And then help the reader follow your argument by using visual cues:
    • Use headings to break the text into sections and make it easier to navigate. It helps your reader to digest the argument in chunks.
    • Make important and engaging information stand out with formatting tools (font, colours, etc.).
    • Use a bulleted list for recommendations.

Writing for clarity and simplicity

In order to make it easier for your reader to understand and remember your message you need to streamline and energize your language.

  • Be economical in your word choice – use smaller words, try to cut words and sentences with- out changing the meaning, or use a word instead of a phrase or clause.
  • Use an active voice – for instance, “people do things” is more engaging than “things were done”. When possible, use a verb rather than its noun form – e.g. instead of “The focus of this study is…” it’s better to use “This study focuses on…”
  • Create structured sentences:
    • Can you say in one sentence what you just said in two or three?
    • Can you break a long sentence into two clearer ones?
    • Are the subject and verb easily identified? Or are you packing too much into the sentence?

Making data talk

Your data should speak at your reader as clearly and concisely as your text.

  • Choose your data carefully, provide enough information but not too much.
  • Choose the most important and compiling data for your aim and your audience.
  • Present it simply and clearly. The data should be easy to understand without any training in statistics.
  • And it needs to be connected to your text without being duplicative.

Presenting data visually

  • Use graphs to show relationships, and when the shape of the data is important (e.g. pat- terns, trends).
  • Use the table only if the reader needs to look at individual values, or if you really need to show precise values.
  • Pie graphs are very common, but bar graphs are more effective because it is easier to com- pare sizes or proportions in a bar graph.

Minimize visual clutter

  • If it does not convey necessary information, leave it out:
    • omit or lighten gridlines
    • avoid legends if you can use simple labels
    • do not duplicate information (e.g. label+ legend)
  • Leave 3D effects to the movie theatres
  • Do not make the reader turn sideways, all the text in the graph should be horizontal
  • Use colours that will copy well in black and white

Lecture: Policy Center (WCHPC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (2016). “The Art and Craft of Policy Briefs: Translating science and engaging stakeholders”, Source: The Women’s and Children’s Health. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1GpcAoBvnc