It's nearly that time of year again, when councils will be seeking feedback from the public on a wide range of plans, policies and bylaws.
I've read thousands of submissions. In my experience, the most effective submissions:
In a spa pool overlooking Kaiteriteri beach my sister and I pondered the question … where do we want to be in five years’ time? She immediately came up with all sorts of ideas, but I was at a bit of a loss.
The five year horizon is quite blurry to me as I have more of a ‘here and now’ mindset. I find weekly goals easier to arrive at than five year ones. Over the past year I have found it incredibly valuable to ask myself these four questions on a weekly basis.
During the weekly Mastermind conference calls we each responded to the four questions listed above. I found that accountability process really powerful and since then have used the questions as the basis for my own weekly review of progress.
In a council situation they could also be valuable questions to ask in weekly meetings between a manager and a staff member. However, one of the benefits of writing down these responses is the trace it leaves.
Last week I read over my review notes for the past year. I really enjoyed reading the ‘wins’ because it’s human nature to remember the problems and to quickly integrate (and pay far less attention to) the things that work out surprisingly well. (Here’s a podcast on the value of noticing your wins.)
The problems faced and potential solutions section was also an interesting read — to see what I agonised over during the year, and also how clearly stating a problem can prompt the arrival of innovative solutions I would not otherwise have thought of.
Setting goals for the week ahead, knowing that in a week you will be checking which ones were actually completed, provides awesome accountability. It also helps me to set realistic goals, and to appreciate the fact of their completion. (Sometimes my goals include giving myself a break, like not making any progress on a new project until something more urgent is finished.)
If, like me, your year can pass by in a blur, you may also find this a useful way to appreciate all that you do get done, and the breakthroughs you make along the way.
Four Anzac Days ago I climbed Mount Arthur. I had hoped we were just going some of the way, or that maybe I could read a book at the Flora Hut while the rest of the walking party went to the top and back. As it turned out, we were all in it for the long haul to the summit.
I was a lot slower and way less fit than anyone else on the trip. And towards the top, where there are some uneven rocks to navigate, my legs refused to cooperate. I remember looking at where I needed to put my next foot, but nothing happened. It was a really frightening paralysis, and I wouldn’t have been able to continue if my friend hadn’t talked me through every single move.
The benefits of chocolate
Surprisingly, my brain kicked back into gear really quickly after eating chocolate at the summit. Coming down that mountain was even nicer — it’s a magical tussocky environment. I also know I will never do it again (I promised myself that while lying prone on the couch the next day).
That paralysis can also happen in a work situation. Last week I was asked to write a document on something important which I knew almost zero about. I could feel my brain going into a really uncomfortable overload mode. If there hadn’t been such a tight deadline I would have been tempted to jump away from it and get on with something easier (or go and eat chocolate).
In the midst of that project I did feel a bit like a mountaineer clinging to a rock face, stabbing my pick axe into one crevice at a time, figuring out what to do. The thing that really helped was printing off my own step by step process for ‘writing a document using multiple sources of information’.
I found where I was up to in that list of steps, and carried on, only looking one step ahead at a time, and as the great Sir Edmund Hillary would say, “we knocked the bastard off”.
When new topics come your way
If you work at a council, it’s likely you’ll end up writing about something you know very little about at some stage in the not too distant future. Climate change, new legislation and a multitude of other challenges are likely to be coming your way, let alone the changes in topics you’ll face if you take on a new role.
When asked to write a report or a plan you may initially feel like me on that mountain, with paralysis coming on and unable to take the next step forward. This is where knowing what your process has been in the past can really help you.
Promapp won’t help
This kind of creative process doesn’t turn up in Promapp or any other business mapping tool, from my experience. The information about actually writing the documents tends to be thin on the ground. And maybe that’s how it has to be, because everyone will have their own way of creating something new.
How others do it
However, once you hit on a process that works for you, it’s likely that you can apply a very similar process across multiple topic areas. David Usher talks about this in his book ‘Let the Elephants Run’ in terms of the process he follows to create songs and develop new business ideas.
Independent Hearing Commissioner David McMahon also has a process he follows when resolving complex planning issues, which he generously describes here.
The reason I’m writing about this now is that hundreds if not thousands of people around the country have recently completed large complex documents as part of the Long Term Plan process — which may have been a development contributions policy, an asset management plan, infrastructure strategy, financial policy, or a series of reports to assist a long term plan committee with its decision making process.
First of all, congratulations on getting your document over the finish line! Before it fades from memory, I highly recommend that you think back over the process you followed to go from nothing to something. Writing down the steps you took to make that document a reality will give you insights into the process that works for you — and it will give you a structure for making progress on the next gnarly writing project that comes your way.
Speed up your writing process
Here’s a link to access the document which outlines my steps for writing a document using multiple sources of information. I hope you find this useful as a starting point for defining your own writing process.
In my early twenties I belonged to two different writing groups. One was organised by an elderly South African man called Ernst who was a published short story writer. These Hamilton meetings were genteel occasions, where copies of novel chapters, short stories and poetry were pre-circulated and seriously critiqued while sipping from tiny glasses of sherry.
The other was a more casual group at Waihi Beach, with meetings held in a bach with no electricity, where the flatmates lived on mussels and flat bread cooked over a chippie stove. Half an hour before the writing group was due to start one of the flatmates would head into the sand dunes to come up with song lyrics to share that night. A friend’s mother joined our group and memorably recited a poem about poisoning her husband with her scones.
I took the same short stories and poems along to each of these groups. In those days I didn’t think as much about what different readers might be interested in.
These days this is my first consideration when writing documents for councils. For most of this year I have been focused on asset management plans but recently helped to write a long term plan (LTP) consultation document.
The LTP consultation document encourages feedback from a broad range of people, most of whom are not being paid to read that document, and will be squeezing in time to read it. While I don’t want to make too many assumptions, most of the target audience probably don’t have a pressing need to know how long the pipes are or the age of the pump station down the road, just as long as it’s still working.
That means every word that’s not paying its way needs to be cut, as in a poem or short story. In contrast, an asset management plan is more like a novel. There’s time to set the scene and get to know the challenges facing our protagonists, even if they are pumps and pipes!
The people reading your asset management plans are likely to be more interested in the subject (and to be paid for their reading time). You will be forgiven for a few boring bits, and can afford to include more background information without losing the interest of your audience.
One of the main challenges I have been grappling with while working on asset management plans is the huge amount of detail that could be included, and what can be taken out to enhance the narrative flow without affecting the overall integrity of the plan.
When structuring and writing an asset management plan, it’s worth considering the different subsets of asset management plan readers (including executive team members, councillors, staff involved in service delivery and Audit NZ).
The International Infrastructure Management Manual (IMMM) 2015 provides this advice:
The example structure in the IMMM is very helpful, but the manual clearly states this is an example rather than a structure which needs to be followed slavishly. It’s worth looking at how different councils structure their asset management plans. For example, Tasman District Council’s 2015 asset management plans place a significant amount of information in appendices rather than in the body of the document.
It’s a fact there will be fewer people lining up to read an asset management plan than a LTP consultation document. However, as noted in the IMMM 2015, the developing or revising of an asset management plan is “a process involving strategic and tactical thinking and decision making, not just a technical writing process.”
In other words, while making improvements to the style and structure of your document will help your readers, the decisions you make through the process of developing or revising an asset management plan will continue to be the most important contributor to the success of your document.
Can you just write an executive summary?
If you’ve just finished your asset management plan or infrastructure strategy this request may not exactly be music to your ears!
That’s because executive summaries for asset management plans and any other large council document are not necessarily something we have ever been formally taught how to do. Despite this, it’s a satisfying document to write because it’s about cutting through the details to what really matters — the guts of the larger document. And at least you know the executive summary will be reasonably widely read, which may not always the case for your larger documents.
The purpose of a summary
It’s fair to assume that a reasonable proportion of your readers won’t read your whole asset management plan or infrastructure strategy or other long council document. Councillors have more than enough reading material provided with every agenda, and interested members of the community need to fit writing their submission (or informal feedback) into a short amount of time around work and/or family obligations.
Writing a high quality executive summary can give the gift of time to people who need to know the key points about your plan or strategy.
So what do decision makers and members of the public really need to know? I asked several people who read a lot of these types of documents for feedback on what makes a good executive summary.
One asset manager said too often large portions of text are copied and pasted into the executive summary. Instead, the executive summary has to distil the content without repeating the detail.
How long should an executive summary be?
Chris Pearce (Senior Advisor, Project and Portfolio Management at Kāpiti Coast District Council) says if an executive summary is any more than four pages it can seem like you’re reading the whole document, not the summary.
Similarly Wikihow’s advice on executive summaries is to aim for a document 5% the size of the source document, and it shouldn’t be more than 10%. So for a 60 page infrastructure strategy, that gives you a target of three pages and a maximum of six pages. Given the size of the canvas you’ve got to work with, what must be included?
David Hammond, who is Nelson City Council’s Acting Chief Executive, provided me with this succinct, useful list for writing the executive summaries of asset management plans:
In terms of the structure, one of the recommendations was that the executive summary should mirror the sections in the main body of the document so the reader can easily reference the details if they want to know more about something mentioned in the summary.
One way to compose an executive summary is to start with the conclusion of each section and include only as much information as is needed to explain the conclusion.
This is where the ABT structure I have mentioned in previous articles can come in handy. For each section, it's worthwhile trying to apply the story structure of … and …, but …, therefore ...
This approach will also help you to break out of copying paragraphs directly from the body of the document. More on using story structure when writing infrastructure strategies is available here.
This structure isn't always a good fit — it worked really well for a waste assessment executive summary I wrote earlier this year, but I haven't been able to use it in the two executive summaries I wrote over the past month.
Chris Pearce says the summary needs to accurately reflect the tone and conclusions in the plan or strategy, which is not always the case in summaries he has read. This is why it’s important to write the executive summary after writing the full document, rather than beforehand, once you fully understand what the full document is saying. It's also why writing an executive summary is more difficult than most people think.
The asset manager who provided feedback for this article also said a good executive summary is extremely difficult to compile and is consequently quite a rare item.
Step by step process
I have found the fact that it's difficult to do an executive summary well can lead to dancing around it, rather than jumping in and getting a draft on the page. That's why I developed an eight step process to help me overcome this resistance.
You are welcome to access my step by step process for writing an executive summary here.
I recently took part in a nine week mastermind programme to enhance my business. One of the outcomes was a one page business plan.
The first vision statement I wrote for my business was ‘helping councils to share their stories’. But then I wimped out and changed it to ‘helping councils to share their information in ways that people can understand and use’. I knew the change was a bit lame but the word ‘stories’ felt too fanciful.
I went to the Aspire conference last week (run by the Nelson Tasman Chamber of Commerce) which had a theme of resilience. I was expecting a worthy but not necessarily entertaining day. So it was quite a surprise when the first speaker, Kyle Mulinder of Bare Kiwi, talked about the value of story in the videos he creates, and the importance of conveying emotion in his work.
The second speaker was John Palmer, who is the Chair of the Nelson Regional Development Agency. He talked about the work the agency is doing to build a clever, distinctive and high value regional identity that attracts visitors, investment and new residents so that Nelson doesn’t become “a large retirement village”.
Creating a vision, and stating what really makes us different from similar businesses, councils or regions is hard, as anyone who has been involved in crafting vision statements for their council will know! It’s something we all struggle with, but John talked about the practical value of doing this.
The third speaker was Jimmy Walsh, who is the International Growth Director at Beca. He talked about natural hazards and risk, and he made this topic into a memorable story by simplifying his message to three key risk factors (hazards, exposure and vulnerability) and asking questions that directly related this issue to the business audience.
I’ve come home and changed my vision back to ‘helping councils to share their stories’.
It might be hard to give yourself permission to think about your infrastructure strategies, financial strategies, long term plans and other documents as stories … but there’s real value in taking this risk so that people in our communities can relate to what we’re talking about.
As the scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson says in Houston We Have a Narrative, "people can listen to a few facts but not many. After a while their narrative need kicks in. You can give a lecture that is pure information with no narrative structure, and a non-technical audience might be able to endure a half-hour or so before walking out, but that same audience will listen to hours and hours of good stories."
I’ve had to break through a fair bit of resistance lately, to create a video and write a magazine article. Both of these are good things to do to communicate with my current and potential clients, but I felt a HUGE amount of resistance to doing both of them.
The thing that helped me break through and get these jobs ticked off my list was a really simple structure outlined in ‘Houston We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story’, by Randy Olson.
I wanted to record a video about my work with asset managers … I had a script that worked in written form but when I tried recording it I realised it was way too detailed. I reduced it to its core using the ‘and, but, therefore’ (ABT) story structure recommended by Randy Olson and suddenly I could say what I needed to say, and even ad lib from the base content. You can see the difference between the written and verbal forms of the same message here.
AND the magazine article
Co-authoring a conference paper led to an opportunity to write an article for a magazine. It was a great opportunity so of course I said yes, but then it weighed heavily on my mind. I wanted to do it well, but I had no idea how.
I knew I was at high risk of getting lost in the details, and of boring anyone who wasn’t deeply interested in the potential conflicts between a number of New Zealand’s national policy statements in relation to stormwater management. Hmm!
Reducing screeds of information into a core message ended up being much easier than I expected, using the ABT structure.
This isn’t something just for writers, or just for people trying to promote their business.
Randy Olson wrote the book for scientists who need to share their complex information with lay audiences, and who are often frustrated by their audiences’ lack of comprehension and even boredom with the important findings they need to share.
Have you ever needed to introduce a report to your councillors, and struggled to give that summary in a concise, compelling way? I sure have. Sometimes it’s really hard to get inside the content and wrestle it into the shape of a story that people both relate to and remember.
Next time you need to engage with an audience about some aspect of your council work, try to create a simple message using the ABT structure.
Another great advantage of this structure is it seems to speed up the writing process, allowing you to tick that presentation or written document off your list far more quickly than you might imagine.
A new recycling system has begun in Nelson. Everyone received their bins back in August, with a booklet explaining the days of collection, and that this would be beginning in the second half of October.
I must admit to feeling a bit smug when I saw the yellow lids out on the street weeks before the new system started. Didn't people read their booklets?
But this week I've had my rubbish bag rejected, left with a 'wrong day' sticker. Not so well sorted, after all!
This process of trial and error, as everyone gets used to the new system is a great example of the best kind of learning, as an adult. We do something wrong, nothing really bad happens, and we do it better next time.
It must have taken Council staff and the recycling contractors (Nelmac) quite a lot of thinking about all the different ways to communicate the changes with residents, who will not have had their rubbish and recycling collections top of mind in the midst of their busy lives. Information needs to be on the bins, in the attached booklet, on both the Council and Nelmac website, and stickers printed for rubbish bags like mine left out on the wrong day. And those are just the communication avenues I've come across, I'm sure there are more.
One thing's for certain, it makes us all appreciate the fact that our rubbish and recycling is eventually taken AWAY.
One of the best things you can do to improve your website is to read everything on it at least once a year, and remove any filler content, says Gerry McGovern in his book Killer Web Content.
While I personally dislike the term 'killer content', I can see the value in getting rid of filler. Too much information obscures the knowledge you wish to share.
This is a big job for councils, to rigorously patrol their content, cutting away what is out of date or no longer relevant, while also providing everything that web visitors want to access.
Strategies should provide direction (why and how something should happen). Plans should include actions and cover who, what and when.
Whichever one you're working on, people are bound to request more practical actions in your strategies, and more long term vision in your plans!
Another challenge for local government is the linkage between strategies and plans, especially with the amended Local Government Act 2002 requiring 30 year infrastructure strategies.
In theory infrastructure strategies (first required in 2015) should be guiding activity management plans and regional land transport plans, but it will take some time for these new documents to really make a strategic difference.
One of the challenges of writing a strategy (whether it is about infrastructure or finance) is to decide how much background information to include.
A certain amount is essential in order to make sense of the issues. However, including too much existing information early on in the document can be an obstacle to readers reaching your fresh thinking.
Novelists face the same challenge. How to introduce enough about the characters and their situation so that readers will care about them, but also plunge into the conflict at the centre of the story?
In both cases it's essential not to take too long to get to the point. The advice of New Zealand novelist and playwright Renée is as relevant to strategy writers as novelists: write out your back story, then think of it as a glass mirror that you smash into little shards, and spread throughout the story
I write a lot of reports but I don't usually think about how I do it. After being asked to give a presentation on report writing, I have started noticing what I do, and I can see a pattern emerging. Every report is different, but here are my basic steps.
1. Access the content
The fastest, easiest reports I write are ones where I can talk to an expert on the subject, asking them non-technical questions to clarify what they want to communicate. It is also the quickest way to access the relevant written information.
The hardest and slowest reports are the ones where I have to dig around in a lot of different written material, hunting for the relevant information and figuring out what I need to say and how to bring it together in a coherent way.
2. Follow the required structure
Many organisations have a template for their reports, which is a huge help in speeding up the process. If not, I spend some time identifying headings under which to group the information, and number the headings in the order I think they need to be in. The heading order usually changes during step three, below.
3. Fast, free flow writing
I write the report in one go, without stopping to check things or perfect sentences. At this stage it's all about getting the information down. Often the writing experience is quite uncomfortable at this stage because I feel like I am making stuff up, but I have learned to stick with it. It's amazing how much of this first draft turns out to be worth keeping.
4. Respond to what is on the page
This is the stage when silence is essential, so that I can hear the words in my mind. (It is bliss to be able to do this in a room of my own, rather than in an open plan office with my fingers in my ears!)
This stage is far more about the meaning of the report than the individual sentences. It's having my radar on, and going slowly, checking anything that doesn't seem right or is missing, and making substantive changes - both additions and subtractions.
5. Slow polish
This is the luxurious stage. The report's message is in place. Now it's just about making each sentence read well. It's the time to pick up typos and improve sentence structure. It's the easiest step of the whole process, but it adds to the professionalism of the report. It's ideal to do this one more time than I think I need (or want to do!). Where possible, if the deadline isn't too tight, I take a break between the last two reviews to refresh my mind, so it's easy to spot those very last, minor changes.