What makes a good brief a great one?

20 Nov

I’ve responded to - and written - a lot of briefs over the years. Just lately, due to the type of work that I’ve been doing I’ve seen loads of them in a short space of time. It got me thinking about what the common features were in the ones on my ‘great’ list. I’m talking about all types of brief here.

It could be a request for a proposal sent to prospective suppliers. Or a company providing outline instructions for a freelance associate. Or one expert handing over a piece of work to another to progress. It may not actually start as a brief at all, if you are a company seeking a specialist to work with you on a project. The specialist would probably write themselves a specific brief based on exploratory conversations with you. Nevertheless, they’d be seeking similar information to help them write an effective one.  

Business purpose 

This is missing from a surprising number of documents and I think it can really hamper the quality of outputs. It’s the ‘why’ that needs to come before the ‘what’. It’s much more satisfying to know why you have been asked to do something. Seeing the bigger picture that your part of the jigsaw fits into also ensure that you focus on the most relevant lines of enquiry. If you know from the outset that what you have been asked to do will form part of an executive pack, you know that you will need to distil & format info in a specific way. The biggest risk though, I think, is that if you only request the “what” you need to be 100% sure that you are asking for the right thing.

This is particularly true if you are briefing for specialist services. I worked on something recently that asked for a type of modelling to be included in the proposal. Unfortunately, the terminology that was used referred to an umbrella term for a whole heap of different model types that answer different business questions. Including an accompanying ‘why’ would have been better. By using a buzzword and not really elaborating I’m assuming it was difficult for that company to evaluate responses on that part of the brief, because respondents had to second-guess what was meant and probably all said something different. Procurement didn’t allow for clarification which was a shame.

It’s also easier to distinguish between wants and needs if your brief contains some detail about why you are seeking a service. Often the ‘what’ is a long list, and I get why, it makes sense to derive as much value as possible from an engagement. But the laundry list is probably a mixture of needs and wants. If that list needs culling, understanding the primary business purpose can help. And sometimes, a specialist will identify other ‘what’ pieces you absolutely need that you haven’t thought of. But they can only do so if they understand your ‘why’. 

Background context 

Sometimes this is missed out because it seems like it might be time consuming and tedious to do, but it doesn’t need to be especially since most information is available digitally.

If you’re a company requesting services, it’s useful to know if this is a new venture, or whether you have an existing version that you want to replace or update. If you want a new thing, provide a link to other examples that you’ve seen and like/don’t like. It’s easier than trying to create a wish-list of features. Ditto, what works and what doesn’t with your existing thing. There’s no point in re-inventing the wheel.

If you’re sitting on useful resources that you use internally to get yourself and your staff up to speed, consider including those in your brief. Simple hyperlinks to background reading, related info in the public domain will ensure two things a) you minimise the number of queries you receive as you’ve given whoever you’ve briefed a way of helping themselves. You’re also ultimately likely to get higher quality outputs because who you briefed can immerse themselves in your world.

Burning desires

Er, what does that mean? This one applies only to requests for proposal I think. If you’re an individual or business that absolutely must have outputs in a particular font/size, you have a document page limit you won’t read past or you won’t open PowerPoint point blank, let whoever you’re briefing know. That’s fairer than silently seething and taking points off because they didn’t comply to un-stated rules. You don’t run the risk of rejecting quality responses just because you react badly to the format submitted.

That’s not something you’ll see happening so much when freelance businesses work together, by the way. Because individuals strive to maintain control over the way they work and so naturally are less prescriptive with briefing one another. There, the trick is to get to know a little who you intend to associate with to try to figure out whether your working styles are similar enough to get along effectively.


Providing the information above is included, less is more. It’s much harder to extract key information when there’s lots of padding. It can also be obvious when it’s a copy and paste job from a previous brief. Nothing wrong with that, but make sure now irrelevant or outdated information is removed. Sometimes there’s repetition and apart from adding words to wade through it’s not a major issue although more words increase the risk of failing to identify the key words.

I understand why some processes run quite formally as a back and forth written responses but consider whether a round table discussion/zoom call may be more fruitful. After all, these can still be minuted/recorded so no important decisions are lost. One of my most recent projects was comprised of a 2-page written brief, 15-minute zoom call and communication throughout on Slack. 3 days, job done.

So what makes good briefs great are including a purpose, providing some background context, stating your burning desires and keeping it brief. Ha ha, "brief", I guess it’s called that for a reason!

* The email will not be published on the website.