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Your Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Winning Policy Brief

by Lydia Stowe, FiscalNote

Policy briefs help your stakeholders understand complex information related to policy in a simple way. Read our step-by-step guide on writing policy briefs.

Writing a policy brief

While creating policy briefs is a big part of the public and government affairs role, it’s not often talked about. According to our 2021 State of Public Affairs Industry Report, 40 percent of government relations professionals say briefing is a monthly task, with 35 percent on a weekly schedule and 11 percent daily. This means a major component of your workweek is spent crafting and developing messaging and metrics for other people.  

Government affairs professionals need to write effective policy briefs to keep legislatures and their teams informed on issues that matter to their organization. We’re here to demystify the art of writing a policy brief and make the process simpler and less time-consuming. 

How to Brief Like a Pro

Our report with best practices, expert input and industry insights to ace your next policy brief.

What is a Policy Brief, Really?

A policy brief is a concise summary of an issue that includes the policy options to solve a problem and recommendations on the best option. Policy briefs are typically written for organization leaders, policymakers, and others who are responsible for creating and influencing policy. Policy briefs are about a timely, relevant issue or an evergreen issue to your organization.

Policy briefs are just that — brief — with a typical one containing around 700 words on a single page. The briefs are usually designed in an aesthetically pleasing way, sometimes with an image or graphic.

How to Structure a Policy Brief

A policy brief template can help structure your brief and make sure you fit all the relevant information onto one page. Here are the key elements to include in any policy brief. 

Title

Your policy brief title should be short and to the point, while also being catchy and attention-grabbing enough to ensure it is read. Keep the title relevant without adding too much information that makes it clunky. Your stakeholder may decide whether to read the brief based solely on the title, so make sure yours is accurate, descriptive, and engaging.

In addition to the title of your brief, you should also add subheaders to make the brief skimmable and break up the text. You don’t want your policy brief to be one long chunk of text, or it will be harder to read and grasp the main points you’re making. Just like your main title, your subheads should be short, catchy, and descriptive. 

Executive Summary

An executive summary is a brief synopsis of the main points of the policy brief, including the conclusions and recommendations. This summary should draw potential readers in and make them intrigued enough to want to read the whole report. 

Bear in mind that the executive summary should contain sufficient information to stand on its own if your policymaker or executive doesn’t have time to read the whole brief. That’s why the summary should be comprehensive enough to provide readers with an overview of the issue, options, and recommendations — all in a few sentences (typically 100-200 words).

The Ultimate Policy Brief Template

Ace your next policy brief with this fully customizable template, designed with expert input and industry insights.

Description of the Problem

A policy brief should include a clear description of the issue or problem you want policymakers to address. Describe the causes of the problem, its effects, and why it matters. In addition to understanding what the problem is, a good policy brief sheds light on why it is important and needs to be addressed urgently.

Based on your audience, you may not want to describe the problem in the most basic way if what you are saying is commonly known to your audience. “Assess how much the audience already knows at the start,” recommends Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “Don’t waste everyone’s time with known basics.”

Overview of Research

This is the section of your policy brief where you get to explain the reasons behind your policy recommendations and show the research and data behind them. Explain what research has been conducted, how data was collected and by whom, and other background information that establishes the credibility of your research. This should be kept to one to two sentences.

Assess how much the audience already knows at the start. Don't waste everyone's time with known basics.

Bruce Mehlman
Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Rhomas

Current and Proposed Policies

Describe the current policies in place to address this issue, and why they are insufficient and new policies are necessary. When creating a state policy brief, Joshua Habursky, head of government relations at the Premium Cigar Association, recommends drawing comparisons and contrasts with other states. “If your brief is to California policymakers, describe what they did in Nevada,” he says. “If California and New York are originating it, it’s going to come to the other 48 states in some way, shape, or form.” 

Then, describe the proposed policies succinctly. After this section of the policy brief, there should be no doubt about current legislation around this topic or what is being proposed.

Policy Recommendations

Finally, it’s time to make your policy recommendations. Use the research and data presented early in the policy brief to draw a connection to your policy recommendations and why they make sense. While your policy recommendations will undoubtedly use persuasive language, keep them rooted in facts.

The biggest mistake people make when writing a policy brief is making it too biased, Habursky says. “A policy brief should be very explanatory, not a persuasive piece,” he emphasized.

Keep your recommendations short and to the point. Creating “narrow and achievable asks with a short, concise agenda” can make all the difference, according to John Loyer, CEO of Loyer Consulting. Less is more when it comes to captivating your audience and making sure that they are following along. 

How to write a policy brief

Appendices & Sources

Since you want the main text to be succinct and easy to read quickly, adding appendices to your policy brief can be a great place to present more detailed data, research, and other information. Add relevant information that supports the policy brief in your appendices.

Last but not least, provide references to no more than five sources where your readers can get more information on the topic, including the web addresses to the publications.

7 Tips for Writing an Effective Policy Brief

Want to learn how to write a policy brief like a pro? Follow these seven tips to ensure your policy briefs are polished and professional.

1. Understand Your Audience

“Personalize your presentation for specific audiences,” Mehlman says. “Rural Republicans and urban Democrats bring different priorities, as do CEOs and heads of government relations.”

Before creating your policy brief, understand your audience. The more you know about the people who will be reading your brief, the more you can customize it for them. 

“The first question to ask is, who is the audience?” Habursky says. He writes policy briefs for board members, external stakeholders, and Hill staff, and tailoring his message to fit the audience is critical. “You get the most bang for your buck if you draft the policy brief and have the mindset that it’s going to go to multiple audience types from the very beginning,” he says. 

At the start, you may not know much about your audience, so take the time to get a feel for their attention span and preferences. “There is a degree of trial and error in the beginning,” Habursky says. “Then you’ll be able to tailor it based on their needs.”

2. Describe the Urgency of the Issue

When you describe the problem, include a few sentences discussing the urgency. Why is this something your reader should pay attention to, and why now? What are the potential ramifications of inaction on this issue? Policymakers have many issues to consider and address, so make it clear why now is the time to act on this particular issue, and why it can’t wait. Back up your claims with solid facts, not emotion-driven rhetoric. 

Writing a policy brief

3. Provide Sufficient Background on the Issue

Don’t assume your audience will already have all the background information on this issue. Summarize any relevant background that will put the issue into context and ensure your reader quickly has a grasp of the history and full scope of the issue. You can also use your appendices and sources section to provide more background information so you don’t disrupt the flow of the main text.

4. Include Statistics to Support Your Argument

Backing up your argument with statistics is a non-negotiable for a policy briefing. Choose stats that pack a punch, and consider presenting them in a visual way that stands out. Don’t bog down your brief with too many numbers, though. Select the statistics that most support your recommendations and have the greatest impact.

5. Keep it Focused on the Main Issue

When you spend every day neck-deep in an issue, it can be hard to condense it into just one page. But the more succinct and focused your briefing, the better chance it has of being read. Hone in on your main issue and the key message you need to convey. 

“When we first started, we felt like every policy paper we wrote had to cover everything we knew about the topic. They were really long and really dense,” says Karen Pearl, president and CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, a New York organization that provides meals to people who are too sick to shop or cook. “We have over time learned to quickly get to the point and to make the papers more digestible. Now they’re much shorter.” The organization comes up with three to four key message points for each brief. They also include a strong visual and a longer, more detailed report that includes citations and more extensive research on the topic. 

We have over time learned to quickly get to the point and to make the papers more digestible.

Karen Pearl, CEO
God's Love We Deliver

6. Avoid Jargon that can Confuse the Audience

Molly Polen, senior director of communications and public relations at the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, always strives for her organization’s briefs to tell readers how scientific information relates to healthcare. She crafts the message to be in easy-to-understand language, not jargon. “What we do is so simple,” she says. “It’s connecting all the pieces to say what the end result will be, how it will be meaningful.”

Keep your message simple and easy to understand, and consider how the terms you use will be received by someone outside your industry (think lawmakers, activists, journalists). Throwing around jargon and complicated acronyms can confuse your reader, muddle the message, and make it difficult to make a connection with your audience. If possible, ask someone outside your industry to give your brief a once-over and flag unfamiliar terms that may need explanation or simplification.

7. Include Visuals such as Charts and Graphs

Eye-catching, engaging visuals can illustrate your point and back up your data in an appealing way. Just make sure your visuals are well thought out and align with your message. “Ensure your visuals match your narrative and narrative matches your visuals,” Mehlman says. “Cognitive dissonance undermines persuasion.”

If you’re short on space and trying to keep the brief to one page, Habursky recommends just describing a chart or in a sentence or two of text, then linking to a webpage where the visual aids can be viewed.

Woman writing policy brief

Write and Present Better Policy Briefs with FiscalNote

With all the policy briefs and issues to manage in a given week, it’s important to stay organized and have the most up-to-date information at your fingertips. FiscalNote has all the tools you need to stay up to date on policy and better research issues that matter to your organization. 

With FiscalNote, users can create policy reports with visualizations, regulatory data, and global legislation and visualization. Users can pick and choose different modules to include in the report, such as basic information, policy maps, data visualizations (charts and graphs showing bill and regulation data), legislative and regulatory tables, and more. 

FiscalNote provides access to the most innovative tools in digital advocacy management as you create policy briefs that make a difference. Our comprehensive approach to managing advocacy and policy issues can help you promote action, manage risk, assess your impact, and drive results.

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