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How to Brief a Senior Executive

By Grant T. Harris for Harvard Business Review

Briefing a senior executive is an art and adept White House staffers do it every day under the most stressful of circumstances. They’re masters of compressing the right information into the right amount of time, no matter how complex the topic or short the briefing. The skills needed to brief the chief executive in the Oval Office are directly applicable to briefing any executive in the C-suite.

There’s no shortage of advice on how to brief a senior leader: keep it short, front-load the message, and so on. These are solid pointers, but they undervalue the interpersonal elements that are critical to a successful briefing. Your presentation can fail or succeed before it begins and your odds are worse if you skimp on the personal in favor of the PowerPoint.

The following tips are based on battle scars from serving twice in the White House and from years of briefing senior corporate, nonprofit, and government leaders, as well as teaching briefing skills in seminars around the country. They’re important whether the briefings take place in person or virtually.

Before You Walk into (or Log into) the Room

Identify the “crucial nodder.” At a critical moment in the briefing, the president will turn to a trusted advisor and look for a facial expression to affirm what you’re saying. You need that person to nod “yes.” It’s a quiet gesture that gives the boss comfort; it shows that your idea is sound and all of the right people have been consulted. Anything short of a supportive nod will invite follow-up questions and sow doubt in the room. Even worse, a look askance or a non-endorsement from a chief advisor can spell the quick death of your pitch.

Before you present your idea, figure out who the crucial nodders are (it may be multiple people and it may vary based on the issue) and consult them in advance. While the executive you’re briefing may not have a crucial nodder, chances are they do have people whose opinions they trust more than others. You need their support — or at least a sense from them that you’re facing an uphill battle.

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