Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 24, Issue 7;   February 14, 2024: Briefing Uphill

Briefing Uphill


Briefing small groups is a common occurrence for members of most organizations. Briefing executives is one of the more challenging forms of such exercises. Here are 14 guidelines for briefing uphill successfully.
Walking a tightrope

Walking a tightrope. This is a good metaphor for briefing executives. For example, knowing how much background detail to include in your briefing can be tricky. A good balance is required.

To brief "uphill" is to brief someone who outranks the briefer. In the most challenging such situations, the briefing recipients are executives and the briefers are somewhere below in the hierarchy. Example briefings include status reports, estimates, risk management plans, project plans, and investigations of past events or their consequences. The fundamental difficulty of briefing uphill is assessing correctly how busy executives are and how well informed they are. Getting either one wrong causes briefers to include material they need not and ought not to include.

Briefing Briefers: Don't tell executives what briefers need to
know to do the briefer's job. Instead, tell executives
what executives need to know to do the executive's job.
uphill is different from other kinds of presentations. Busy and knowledgeable executives don't want to sit for long to listen to stories. They want focused information and evidence. They have a wide view of the world, they work under intense pressure, and they're unaccustomed to hearing something wholly new from downhill.

Most important, executives are uninhibited about interrupting and directing their briefers. They want to drink from an information fire hose. They might already have opinions, but they want their briefers to perfect those opinions. These factors conspire to deprive briefers of the time they would need to present a case from a standing start to a dramatic conclusion.

What follows are 14 tips for briefing small groups of executives using visual aids such as PowerPoint or Keynote.

Distill your message: three points at most
For a typical briefing of less than an hour, have at most three "take-aways" that you want to be sticky enough for attendees to repeat to others. One single point is best. The core message should be easily remembered and even more easily propagated. Ease of propagation makes word-of-mouth transfer possible.
For longer briefings, scale up proportionally: a maximum of three points per hour.
Deliver the headline first
Have a simple headline that captures the main point of the briefing. Deliver that headline at the start of the briefing. Drop back to motivate the headline only if you sense that the audience needs that background, or you feel that your thoughts haven't landed right.
This is especially important if the briefing includes bad news, for two reasons. First, bad news travels rapidly. If the core message of the briefing didn't land right, catching up to it to correct it will be difficult. Second, if you choose to delay delivering the bad news headline, the audience members will sense that it's coming anyway, and they'll start imagining what the bad news could be. Because you can't control what they imagine, it could be worse than the actual bad news. Getting the actual bad news out onto the table is usually safer than letting the audience make stuff up until you get to the headline.
Delivering the headline first is also advantageous when the news is good. It sets a positive tone for the briefing and makes everything that follows it a little easier.
Keep slides simple
A slide set that includes fancy animations, visual effects, and intricate design competes with the briefer for audience attention. Even worse, such a slide set competes with its own content. Avoid animations and gratuitous graphics. Confine each slide to a single main point, which you capture in the slide title. Slides that convey two or more points are difficult to skip if time runs short or attention is fading. A complex slide is also difficult to reuse in future briefings.
Two tactics help to keep slides simple. First, restrict each bullet item to a single line of text. Second, use a font size of 28 points or larger.
Avoid starting slide titles with question words
One common practice I've seen is titling slides with phrases that begin with a question word. Questions words include, for example, who, what, where, when, why, which, whom, whose, whether, and how. To illustrate, if this guideline were on a slide, the question-word form of the slide title might be, "Why we should avoid starting slide titles with question words", or possibly "Why should we avoid starting slide titles with question words?" A more effective title would be, "Avoid starting slide titles with question words".
Slide titles are the most important words on slides because they're usually at the top, in larger font size, and boldface. Because the audience reads the title before the rest of the slide, the title "primes" the audience for the slide's main points. It's therefore advantageous to the presenter to craft the title as a positive, declarative form that carries the main point of the slide. To craft the title as a question is to miss an opportunity to state the slide's main point.
Read the room
Know the signs that the audience members are becoming impatient, or that they strongly object to the briefing content. Awareness of problems can be useful for mental preparation even if mid-briefing adjustments aren't always be possible.
In some cases, it's possible to manage the risk of strong objections by tightly focusing on material that's directly relevant to the case, and omitting material that's more tangential.
For longer briefings, announce scheduled breaks
For briefings longer than 45 minutes or so, breaks are necessary because audience members might need to check in with staff. Announcing scheduled breaks at the outset reduces the incidence of step-asides. Propose generous breaks at first — at least 15 minutes per hour. If they don't need such a generous break schedule, let them set a break schedule that they prefer.
During the break, run a countdown clock on screen. Some organizations have banned importing the code needed for such a utility. If yours is one of these, try constructing the business case for countdown clocks by estimating the cost of not having one. Include in your estimates the cost of everyone's time when either (a) you're compelled to do a recap of what late-returnees missed, or (b) everyone must wait until late-returnees arrive.
Resume on time after the break no matter who isn't back yet.
Recognize audience impatience
If audience members become impatient, they'll interrupt you. Or they'll ask questions about something you intended to get to later. These examples illustrate why interruptions and anticipatory questions can be useful as indicators of audience impatience. They aren't proof of impatience; they're merely suggestive.
Understand complaints about "detail"
A common complaint from recipients of uphill briefings is that briefers include too much detail. Undoubtedly, some do. But many such complaints are actually about briefings that tell executives what they already know, or what they regard as irrelevant, or what they believe they need not know.
A good guideline for briefers is this: Don't tell executives what briefers need to know to do the briefer's job; instead, tell executives what executives need to know to do the executive's job.
Assume that they already have background information
They probably know already the essence of any background you might offer. Still, some of what they "know" might be inaccurate, or some might be outdated. If you're aware of any such information, providing background is one way to align everyone. But providing other background information entails a risk of trying the patience of audience members.
Be prepared to go deeper if they ask
Along with the message you intend to deliver, you might be able to anticipate questions or comments the audience members might have upon receiving your message. To prepare for this circumstance, have two or three points that you carry in your "back pocket," along with slides to match.
Because those back-pocket slides won't be configured to appear in the main sequence, you must become familiar with the methods for displaying them. For PowerPoint in slide-show mode, the procedure is to Control+click the screen to expose the Navigation menu. Then "Go to Slide" shows a menu of all slides, and "Last Viewed" takes you back to where you were before you navigated to the back-pocket slide. For Keynote in Play mode, enter a slide number to expose a sidebar containing all slides. Click one to go there. Press "Z" repeatedly to retrace your steps back slide-by-slide.
Allow three minutes per slide
An average of three minutes per slide includes one minute for you and two minutes for questions or comments from the audience. The two or three slides that make your main points might require up to seven or eight minutes each.
Words we must (almost) never say
Here, in table form, are some dos and don'ts.
Avoid this
Do or say this instead
Great question
Good point
I'm coming to that, hold on
Go there immediately
Keep in mind that…
I don't know
I can research that/get that /look into that
I'll have to get back to you
I'll have that for you by HH:MM
I (don't) think so, I (don't) believe so
We tend to (dis)agree, but we're not yet 100% certain
Practice, but don't over-practice
Practice what you plan to say for each slide. Don't just repeat what's on the slide. Whatever you do say should add insight and value to what appears on the slide. Finding additional insight should be easy, because the slide is so sparse that when you were writing the slides you had to remove quite a bit of good stuff.
One way to create useful narration is to write a script for each slide. Beware, though — people who practice too much tend to sound rehearsed and insincere. Both PowerPoint and Keynote have a rehearsal mode that can provide a time window for each slide.
Use the same practice technique for any questions or critiques you anticipate your audience might offer.
Conduct Red Team reviews
A Red Team review of a work product is a review conducted by a team of knowledgeable individuals. The objectivity of the members of the Red Team is assured because they played no role in development of the work product. Because the review occurs before delivery, the result of the review can guide corrective actions to improve the product.
Red Team reviews of briefings can be useful at several stages of development of the briefing, including messaging, slides, narration, delivery, anticipated questions, and question response. I examine these reviews more closely next time.

Last words

You might be the presenter, but the audience is in charge, so follow their lead even if they want to scramble the order of your presentation. Don't try to change their minds about the issues. Instead, show them new facts and new options. Then they can change their own minds — or not. Go to top Top  Next issue: Red Team Reviews of Uphill Briefings  Next Issue

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