A Brief Guide to Writing Briefs
If, as the saying goes, proper planning prevents poor performance, then a good brief is the cornerstone of effective content.
By Daniel Hatch
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of CCO.
Every editor knows what it feels like to sit exasperated in front of the computer, screaming internally, “It would have been easier if I’d done it myself.”
If your role involves commissioning and approving content, you probably know that same sinking feeling: you’re 10 seconds into reviewing a piece of content and it’s already become obvious that the creator hasn’t understood a damn thing you told them. As you get deeper into it, your fingertips switch gears from polite tapping to full digital Riverdance as annoyance spews onto your keyboard. We’ve all been there. It’s why we drink. Or do yoga. Or practice voodoo.
In truth, even your best writers, designers, or audiovisual content creators are capable of turning in a bad job. Maybe they were having an off day. Perhaps they were rushing to meet deadline. Or maybe they just didn’t understand the brief.
The first two excuses can be put down to the content creator’s professionalism. You’re allowed to get grumpy about that. But if your content creator didn’t understand the brief, then you, as the editor, are at least partly to blame.
Taking the time to create a thorough but concise brief is probably the single greatest investment you can make in both your work efficiency and your sanity. The contrast in emotions when a perfectly constructed piece of content lands in your inbox could not be starker. It’s like the sun has burst through the clouds, someone has released a dozen white doves, and that orchestra that follows you around has started playing the lovely bit from Madam Butterfly – all at once.Creating a thorough but concise #content brief is an investment in efficiency and sanity, says @daniel_hatch Click To Tweet
Here’s what a good brief does:
- It clearly and concisely sets out your expectations (so be specific).
- It focuses the content creator’s mind on the areas of most importance.
- It encourages the content creator to do a thorough job rather than an “it’ll do” job.
- It results in more accurate and more effective content (content that hits the mark).
- It saves you hours of unnecessary labor and stress in the editing process.
- It can make all the difference between profit and loss.
Arming content creators with a thorough brief gives them the best possible chance of at least creating something that is fit for purpose – even if it’s not quite how you would have done it. Give them too little information, and there’s almost no hope they’ll deliver what you need.
On the flip side, overloading your content creators with more information than they need can be counterproductive. I know of a writer who was given a 65-page sales deck to read as background for a 500-word blog post. Do that and you risk several things happening:
- It’s not worth the content creators’ time reading it, so they don’t.
- Even if they do read it, you risk them missing out on the key points you want to get across.
- They’ll charge you a fortune because they’re losing money doing that amount of preparation.
- They’re never going to work with you again.
So, there’s a balance to be struck.
Knowing how to give useful and concise briefs is something I’ve learned the hard way over 20 years as a journalist and editor. What follows is some of what I’ve found works well. Some of this might read like I’m teaching grandma to suck eggs, but I’m surprised how many of these points often get forgotten.
Who is the client?
Provide your content creator with a half- or one-page summary of the business:
- Who it is
- What it does
- Whom it services
- What its story is
- Details about any relevant products and services
Include the elevator pitch and other key messaging, so your content creator understands how the company positions itself and what kind of language to weave into the piece.
Who is the audience?
Include a paragraph or two about the intended audience. If a company has more than one audience (for example, a recruitment company might have job candidates and recruiters), then be specific. Even a sentence will do, but don’t leave your content creators guessing. They need to know whom the content is for.
The brief itself
This is the bit where you tell your content creators what you want them to create. Be sure to include three things:
- The purpose of the piece
- The angle to lead with
- The message the audience should leave with
I find it helps to provide links to relevant background information if you already have them available, particularly if it inspired or contributed to the content idea rather than relying on the content creator to find their own. It can be frustrating when their research doesn’t match or is inferior to your own.A brief should include purpose, angle, and the message audience should leave with. @daniel_hatch Click To Tweet
How does the brand communicate?
Include any information the content creators need to ensure they’re communicating in a way that sounds authentic for the brand concerned.
Tone of voice: The easiest way to give guidance on tone of voice is to provide one or two examples that demonstrate it well. It’s much easier for your content creators to mimic a specific example they’ve seen, read, or heard than it is to interpret vague terms like “formal,” “casual,” or “informative but friendly.”
Style guide: Giving your content creator the style guide can save you a lot of tinkering. This is essential for visuals but also important for written content if you don’t want to spend a lot of time changing “%” to “percent” or uncapitalizing job titles. Summarize the key points or most common errors.
Give examples: Examples aren’t just good for tone of voice; they’re also handy for layout and design to demonstrate how you expect a piece of content to be submitted. This is especially handy if your template includes social media posts, meta descriptions, and so on.Put examples in creative #content briefs so writers/designers see what you want to accomplish. @daniel_hatch Click To Tweet
The elements of a content brief
Here are nine basic things at a minimum every single brief requires:
- Title. What are we calling this thing? (A working title is fine so that everyone knows how to refer to this project.)
- Client. Who is it for and what do they do?
- Deadline. When is the final content due?
- The brief itself. What is the angle, the message, the editorial purpose of the content being created? Include here whom the audience is.
- Specifications. What is the word count, format, aspect ratio, or run time?
- Submission. How and where should the content be filed? To whom?
- Contact information. Who is the commissioning editor, the client (if appropriate), and talent?
- Resources. What blogging template, style guide, key messaging, access to image libraries, and other elements are required to create and deliver the content?
- Fee. What is the agreed price/rate? Not everyone puts this on the brief but, if appropriate, include it.
Depending on your business or the kind of content involved, you might have other important information to include here, too. Put it all in a template and make it the front page of your brief.
Prepare your briefs early
It’s entirely possible you’re reading this, screaming internally, “By the time I’ve done all that, I could have written the damn thing myself.”
But much of this can be done well in advance. The background information about a company, its audience, and how it speaks doesn’t change. You can pull all those resources into a one- or two-page document, add some high-quality previous examples, throw in the templates they’ll need, and bam! You’ve created a short, useful briefing package you can provide to any new content creator whenever it is needed. You can do this well ahead of time.
Hopefully, these tips will save you a lot of internal screaming in the future. Not to mention drink, yoga, and voodoo.