How to Brief a Senior Officer
I was recently asked on-line about "how to brief a senior officer?” Great question!
I suppose at this point, I AM a senior officer, but I still do lots of briefings to my bosses, notably Secretary of Defense Panetta and occasionally President Obama. I also brief the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Joint Chiefs of Staff as we all prepare military advice to send up to our civilian leaders. So I still do my share of briefings to folks who are senior to me. There are a few things I try to do, and also things I look for when I am being briefed, and these might be helpful.
The first step is giving the boss the big picture. In a couple of sentences, try to outline the basics of the situation and the problem you seek to solve or the creative idea you are pushing. Where are we in the timeline? The early days with plenty of time; or are we in a crisis? Is this a "new” problem or idea, or just amplifying information on the answer or idea previously introduced? Tailor your introduction and discussion appropriately. And keep it short.
Next offer an assessment that lays out the key facts the decision-maker needs. This is where some briefers get into trouble by getting lost in the details. Put yourself in the shoes of the decision maker and tailor the background info to what he or she doesn't already know. Don't use jargon, acronyms, or insider expressions. You'll need to state your assumptions up front as well.
Third step – and the key, of course – is articulating what you propose. Make this simple, creative, and sensible. Think through and discuss second order effects. Mention how your idea will play with the ‘customers' the boss reports to as appropriate. Address the challenges – especially the resources required -- in a realistic way. Be honest and clear-eyed, not an impassioned advocate for a pet theory or project. Give both sides of the argument and anticipate objections. You need to be able to walk through the plan in such a way as to make it understandable. As a structure, I use "background,” "challenges” and "solutions” when I speak to those I am trying to persuade since it lays out what we need to address and how we can do so.
And why do we call it a "brief?” Because you have a finite amount of time to get in, outline your issue and then move out with an answer or idea. Time is always tight but if you make it concise and clear, it can fit.
As a briefer it is your responsibility to facilitate the transfer of information from yourself to the senior leader — do not forget that. Often the best way to do that is simply a conversation. With other issues, slides can be helpful. But if you are using slides, remember it is a thin line that takes a ‘killer slide' from being informative to merely looking impressive, or worse still, simply confusing.
Generally, I am impressed by how efficiently a briefer can give information I need for a decision point. Graphics, power point slides and the like can facilitate this, but only if they compliment the briefer's remarks.
When I brief I do not use many words in my slides. Rather, I use pictures or graphics to compliment my remarks. Generally, I find pictures which I consider evocative and require no more than a few words to give context. I will use an outline sometimes to keep my thoughts on track, but otherwise I study the subject matter until I feel I have a near-mastery of the subject and can speak at the desired length with my own style. Master the material: It all really begins there.
Never read from a slide or a text. The decision maker doesn't need you for that. Be confident, relaxed, and don't be afraid to use a little humor as appropriate. Realize that you will probably be asked questions you don't know the answer to, and the only answer is "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you with the information.” Focus on outcomes. And speak up, with good posture – as always, what we learn early in life stands us in good stead later.
All of this is a skill at which you can improve with practice and observation. If you are able, watch others as they brief senior leaders and watch the interaction. What was well received? What was poorly conveyed? What would make it better? These are "free” practice sessions for you—someone else did all the work!
Above all, be honest and work hard to convey the information—the brief is about the info, not about you. The odds are good that you'll know more than anyone else in the room about the subject: Sharing that expertise in a brief, concise, and sensible way is the goal. Good luck!