Broadly speaking there are two types of briefings. There are briefings for information and briefings for decision. There are also briefing notes which are outside the scope of this article and will be covered at a later date.
For the purpose of today’s article when I refer to a briefing I am referring to a conversation, presentation or pitch that you are providing to an executive in person or over the phone. I will be giving tips on briefing executives from the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM) level and higher, but the same principles can be applied if you are briefing an executive director or director.
Briefing for information is a presentation you give on an issue to give facts. You are not necessarily expected to have an opinion on the situation or have a solution to any of the problems presented by the situation. As a rule, I try to prepare a few options or well considered comments in case the executive asks for your opinion after briefing them on information. They might not ask, but do not be caught unprepared.
Briefing for decision is a presentation you give on an issue and you are expected to present several options for the executive to choose from. These briefs tend to take the form of structured arguments that lead the executive to endorse one of the options presented at the end.
Whether you are preparing for an information or decision briefing think about these 5 principles:
1. Think “High Level”
If you spend any time with public service executives you will have undoubtedly heard the phrase “high level.”
As in: “Would you write me a high level summary? Could you ensure the briefing note is high level? The Deputy Minister would like just high level, don’t get too specific – she doesn’t have much time.”
High level is an abbreviation of high level overview. Meaning it is an outline that goes over the issues in broad strokes. Think cliff notes version of an issue. When you are creating a high level overview of an issue think of the broad themes, patterns and trends. If there are significant exceptions to patterns or trends, these might be important to note as well. For example if there has recently been a precedent setting court case that overturned an expected ruling against the provincial government. Imagine you only have 3 minutes to describe a given situation- that is high level.
So even if you have 15 minutes or 1 hour to brief, make sure that you are truly giving a high level summary and not getting lost in the weeds.
2. Summarize then provide options
This is important. Executives at the ADM level and higher do want you to know the details but that does not mean they want to hear about them. Summarize the situation/policy issue at a “high level” but come prepared to answer detailed questions.
Once you have made your choices regarding what you are going to say and the options you are going to pitch prepare to talk about them in a dispassionate way. When presenting be as neutral as possible. If there is an obvious route to choose or a route you think is best, you can say so. Just rationalize it with some evidence or examples. Do not just stamp your foot and say you want what you want because you want it. Really. It is not a good look on you.
3.Prepare, prepare, prepare and…prepare
It is very important that you know your subject matter backwards and forwards. Spend time preparing and practice your briefing out loud, preferably to another human. You need to be prepared to move quickly but at a manageable pace through your material. Aim to finish a few minutes early so you can take questions.
Should you prepare notes and bring them with you? Yes.
The only person who should not bring notes are those gods among us who have photographic memory and nerves of steel. You will need both of those qualities to brief without notes. Remember, you do not have to read a script that you have prepared but it is important to have notes to refer to when you get lost in a thought, get asked a question or need to refer to your notes when stalling for time to think of an answer to a question. It is not unprofessional to have notes. In many situations, if you are running a meeting or briefing someone it is unprofessional not to have notes at the ready.
4. Keep it tight
During the briefing you should present yourself as in control but not bossy. You want to project confidence in the material you have prepared and then defer respectfully to those you are presenting to. Remember- you are presenting and they are the ones deciding. Do not be overly pushy about the option you want.
Dress well. What if it is a briefing by teleconference? Dress well. Research shows that how you physically look impacts how you feel. So dress smart, feel smart is the idea.
5. Be honest
If you are dealing with a competent executive who wants to get this decision right, you will be asked tough questions. Do not panic. Take a moment, ask if you can refer to your notes and look at your notes. This will give you some time to take a breath, think and actually see if you were smart enough to write down something useful in your notes. This makes you appear more intelligent and prepared than if you just blurt out “I don’t know.”
If you do not know the answer to a question after you have taken a breath, read your notes and thought about it, be honest. Say that you will get back to them and then write down their exact question on the spot so you remember to do so.
Lastly be polite but speak the brutal truth about what other people think of the issue. Executives want to know if stakeholders hate one of the options you are presenting or if frontline workers really love option 3. Do not be afraid of hurting their feelings. The executive trusts you to give them all the information they need and strong opinions of internal and external stakeholders is information they need.
Jonathan Menold is the chair of IPAC Vancouver