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ACCA SBL: Guides on Gaining Professional Marks by Specimen Papers

ACCA SBL Specimen Papers are published. They are very useful for you to prepare exam. In this article, I share with you how to gain professional marks by referencing with Specimen Papers.

Brief Introduction

A change of Professional Level of ACCA qualification is effective from September 2018.

It means 1 new paper, Strategic Business Leader (SBL), will replace two existing papers, P1, Governance, Risk and Ethics and P3, Business Analysis.

There are 10 areas covered in ACCA SBL syllabus –

A. Leadership

B. Governance

C. Strategy

D. Risk

E. Technology and data analytics

F. Organisational control and audit

G. Finance in planning and decision making

H. Enabling success and change management

I. Professional skills

J. Other employability, and digital skills

In our article “ACCA SBL: Mapping of Key Syllabus Areas from Previous Level Exams”, we shared with you how do Fundamental and Skills level exam papers link to ACCA SBL syllabus from area A to area H.

Now, we focus on area I, Professional Skills.

An important note to you in ACCA SBL is 20% of this paper marks are in professional skills asked in the questions.

It is significantly higher than other strategic professional level papers which only include 4 marks in professional skills.

Where are the professional marks from?

In ACCA SBL syllabus, it states clearly the exam is assessed 100% of an integrated case study with pages of information provided.

In addition to the technical capabilities, which share 80% of total marks, the exam assesses your 5 professional skills (20% of total marks):

1. Communications –

  • Inform

  • Persuade

  • Clarify

It means you can express yourselves in a clear and convincing way through proper medium by paying attention to your audience.

2. Commercial acumen –

  • Demonstrate awareness

  • Use judgement

  • Show insight

It means you need to show awareness of organisational and external factors affecting business, applying your sound judgement and commercial insight to suggest solutions on issues.

3. Analysis –

  • Investigate

  • Enquire

  • Consider

It means you have to thoroughly research and study information from different sources (i.e. exhibits) and consider to propose proper actions after logically process the information and data.

4. Scepticism –

  • Probe

  • Question

  • Challenge

It means you are asked to probe, question and challenge information and views provided to you, to understand the business issues and ethical values with facts identified.

5. Evaluation –

  • Assess

  • Estimate

  • Appraise

It means you have to adopt a balanced approach to assess organisational issues, proposals and arguments, to estimate future trends and forecast outcomes after opinions and findings are appraised.


An article “Strategic Business Leader – Professional Skills marking guide” published by ACCA provides us the hints how examiners set exam requirements on SBL exam.

In addition to technical skills, the exam requirements is set to “help discriminate between candidates on the basis of their overall “professionalism” in writing their exam answers”.

There are 9 evidences to support whether the answers provided can complement technical skills with “professionalism” –

  1. Making the most important or crucial points relating to the requirement;

  2. Showing deep or clear understanding of underlying or causal issues and integrating knowledge from a number of sources to make points;

  3. Only making relevant points and not including superfluous information;

  4. Not repeating points already made;

  5. Addressing the requirements as written;

  6. Showing an ability to prioritise and make points in logical and progressive way;

  7. Structuring and presenting answers in a professional manner through faithfully simulating the task as would be expected of the person being asked to carry it out;

  8. Evidencing sound knowledge from previous learning (e.g. F1/AB, F5/PM, F8/AA, F9/FM);

  9. In addition to being clear, factual and concise, students should express themselves convincingly, persuasively and show credibility in what they say.

Note: 9 evidences are extracted from “Strategic Business Leader – Professional Skills marking guide”

To sum up, “professionalism” is writing to the points related to requirements, deep understanding of the issues and ability to prioritise arguments in logical way.

Invalid points or repeating same arguments in the discussion should be avoided as they show you are lack of professionalism and cannot gain full professional marks.

Communication in different “formats”

Based on all published materials by ACCA on SBL exam, communication is the most important professional skills as it can be found in a lot of questions in 2 issued Specimen exams.

As mentioned, communication is the ability to inform, persuade and clarify as requested.

So, how does the examiner set requirements in question to test you?

In each requirement, specific format in presenting your answers in SBL exam is asked.

But remember, no matter what the format is required, addressing your role and your audience role is the most important task before you draft your answer.

Since it helps you to set the tone in the answer, the first step showing your professionalism.

From 2 published Specimen exams, we come up with 7 types of format that you have to know.

I explain to you with example one by one.

1. Letters, emails and memos

Letters, emails and memos should not be new to most of you.

However, it is easy to forget the correct tone in your answer.

In general, your role in ACCA SBL exam is most probably a senior management or advisor or consultant and your audience is the chairman or board of directors.

The tone should be rather formal instead of informal, so you should avoid shortened words or phrases.

However, you should keep your sentences and answers concise, to the point and well organized.

A letter sample is from Question 2b, Specimen 2 is presented in next Section below.

2. Reports

As compared to email and memo, reports are presented more structured, well-formulated and lengthy.

The tone is absolutely formal and third person, i.e. “It”, is suggested to adopt.

You are often required to recommend a solution as part of your answer.

In ACCA, there is a “standard format” on a report, which is a good guide for you to remember and follow.

A report sample is extracted from Question 3a, Specimen 2.

Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

3. Presentation slides and notes

Professional skills in making presentation slides and notes are important in business world.

You are tested on how to create slides with immediate impact, be quick and easy to read.

Bullet point is accepted (seems it is the only format allowed bullet point?).

In addition, presentation slides are usually accompanying with explanatory notes.

Sample of presentation slides and accompanying notes can be found in Question 3b, Specimen 2.

Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

4. Visual aids, such as grids or heat maps

Sometimes, you are required to visualise your ideas and make your presentation based on it.

It is visual aid while examples in ACCA SBL include Mendelow’s matrix, BCG matrix and heat map.

In the exam, the ability to explain concepts and ideas through visual aid is 1 of communication skills to be tested.

A letter sample is from Question 2a, Specimen 1 is presented in next Section below.

5. Briefing notes / briefing papers and working notes

The purpose of these documents is for recipient to form an objective opinion of facts.

No real formal structure pm briefing notes or papers but you have to pay attention on 3 points while preparing these –

  • To be short in sentence

  • To the point

  • Informative and factual

Question 1a from Specimen 2 shows you what the format of briefing note is.

Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

6. Press release

Press release is for promoting or conveying specific organisational information to customers, suppliers, shareholders and general public.

It is factual and concise while the most important information are published.

A suggested format of press release is –

Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

7. Project Initiation Document (PID)

PID is a tool in project management including the following topic –

  • Project goals

  • Scope

  • Project organisation

  • Business case

  • Constraints

  • Stakeholders

  • Risks

  • Project controls

  • Reporting frameworks

  • PID sign off

  • Summary

Question 5b from Specimen 2 is an example of PID.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

Ways to Gain Professional Marks

Now, you are familiarised with different formats.

Next step is how to gain professional marks in ACCA SBL exam.

As mentioned above, there are 5 professional skills required in the exam.

I share with you with examples from Specimen exam papers what a good answer should be.

1. Communication (Inform, Persuade, Clarify)

If the question requires demonstrating communication skills, you need to convey your answers in a clear and logical way.

Question 1c from Specimen 1 is selected to show how to gain professional marks.

Requirement –

“Prepare information for two presentation slides to be presented to the DCS Company board, including relevant bullet points and supporting notes, highlighting the key benefits and identifying the main opportunities presented by big data analytics to DCS Company and its customers.

Professional Skills marks are available for demonstrating communication skills in highlighting the key points to include in the slides and for clear supporting notes.”

Selected answers and explanations are shown below.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

2. Commercial acumen (Demonstrate awareness, Use judgement, Show insight)

To answer a question requiring commercial acumen, you have to refer to the information provided and probably your answer.

Next, you need to show your insight with your judgement based on the materials.

Question 2a from Specimen 1 is chosen to share how to write a good answer.

Requirement –

“Draft a section of the report to identify and briefly discuss THREE main risks which DCS Company currently faces and plot them on a heat map, recommending appropriate strategies to manage those risks using an appropriate risk management framework.

Professional Skills marks are available for demonstrating commercial acumen in identifying and locating the risks appropriately.”

Selected answers and explanations are shown below.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

3. Analysis (Investigate, Enquire, Consider)

You have to show excellent analysis skills, including additional calculations, when pages of data provided.

In addition, you should know how to interpret your calculations and analysis with reference to evidences or arguments in the question.

Question 2a from Specimen 2 is a good example showing how to present analysis skills.

Requirement –

“Alex Reed has asked you to prepare a report for the Rail Co Trust Board which:

Evaluates the implications of the findings of the passenger survey results and reviews the actual and relative performance of Rail Co over the last three years.

Professional skills marks are available for demonstrating analysis skills used in reviewing the information presented in the spreadsheet.”

Selected answers and explanations are shown below.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

4. Scepticism (Probe, Question, Challenge)

Given the data and information, you have to show deep scepticism on them.

You should strongly question with evidence and challenge opinions in a professional and justified manner.

You can refer to Question 2b from Specimen 2 on requiring scepticism skills.

Requirement –

“Alex has asked you to draft a letter to be sent to the chairman of the Rail Co Trust Board which:

Reviews the effectiveness of the internal controls at Rail Co using evidence from the minutes of the latest Rail Co board meeting and any other suitable source and justifies that the chief executive of Rail Co is failing in his fiduciary duties to the trustees of Rail Co.

Professional skills marks are available for demonstrating scepticism skills in questioning the opinions and assertions made by the chief executive at the recent board meeting."

Selected answers and explanations are shown below.

5. Evaluation (Assess, Estimate, Appraise)

To be assessed as excellent answers, you need to demonstrate the follows –

  • Assess the situations by balancing different views;

  • Using professional judgement to estimate the impact.

Question 5a from Specimen 2 demonstrates how to gain evaluation skills marks.

Requirement –

“You have been asked by the director of Projects and Infrastructure to write a business case to the board, in which you will: Justify why the investment in online ticket sales could assist Rail Co in producing detailed and timely customer data to assist in customer relationship management.

Professional skills marks are available for demonstrating evaluation skills in assessing the impact of online ticket sales on customer relationship management.”

Selected answers and explanations are shown below.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.

Marking Grid

Before closing, it is worth to share with you the “professional marks criteria gird” in the suggested answers on Specimen examination paper.

It lists out clearly what a good answer should be and also, why poor answer cannot gain marks.

During you study, I strongly suggest you to check this grid after finishing a question.

 Acknowledgement: Extract from ACCA SBL Specimen exam for explanation only.


This article focuses on sharing with you on the ways to gain 20% professional marks in ACCA SBL exam.

You have to understand very clear on 5 professional skills, which are –

  • communication,

  • commercial acumen,

  • analysis,

  • scepticism, and;

  • evaluation.

They are appeared in the exam as examiner sets questions to differentiate between weak and strong candidates based on their overall “professionalism”.

Choosing appropriate format is another key to be success in gaining professional marks.

Generally, there are 7 formats you need to remember before exam,

i) letters, emails and memos;

ii) reports;

iii) presentation slides and notes;

iv) visual aids;

v) briefing notes;

vi) press release; and

vii) project initiation document.

As SBL is one of strategic professional level paper, the requirements are definitely different from what you have experienced before in previous level.

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