Writing for Executive Audiences
Leaders at every level of the federal government depend on the input and analysis of subject matter experts (SMEs) in order to make well-informed decisions. What is expected of you when you are asked to prepare a briefing or summary for an executive decision-maker?
There’s little doubt our federal agencies are filled with talented public servants who know their business, but all too often expertise and information get lost in translation.
Concise and clear writing skills are how you ensure your insights and data get noticed. The more concise you are, the more effective you can be in providing information that leads to the best decision-making outcomes.
Content or Context?
When we are close to a topic, we see it very differently than our colleagues who only have a passing exposure to our work. We take for granted their level of understanding and make assumptions about what they know and need to know.
If you want to be able to support good decision making in your organization, you must provide not only the content – the facts and data – but also the context – the story and timelines that give that data meaning.
As a reporter, I often had the privilege of interviewing experts on subjects I knew little or nothing about. Generally, I would have less than an hour to glean some salient perspective from this expert that I could then boil down into a minute and forty-five-second television package. On the other hand, my expert usually arrived at the interview with decades of research, expertise and enthusiasm, ready to download it all into my “prefrontal hard drive.” This almost always ended with me wondering “what matters most” in what I had heard.
As a SME, your goal in briefing colleagues is to ensure they never have to wonder “what matters most.” In other words, make sure that the information you are providing has more than just data – it must tell a story. That’s context as well as content.
Wired for Stories
As humans, our brains are wired for stories. From the start of recorded time, we’ve been gathering around campfires to tell stories. Our brains process information in sequential ways that lend themselves to a storytelling format. We remember and recall details because of stories. Our relationships and survival strategies have always been story-dependent.
Today, we’ve replaced the campfire with conference tales (or online communication platforms). But if we want to be successful, stories are still the best way to advance our ideas.
It turns out your junior high English teacher knew what she was about when she told you to start with an outline. Before you open up a PowerPoint deck or a new Word document, ask yourself what story you want to tell. Who are the heroes? What is the goal they are striving to attain? What challenges are they combatting?
Maybe your hero is a scrappy team of IT professionals, developing the process to move your organization’s data to the cloud and overcoming legacy database challenges to get there. That’s a narrative.
Outline Your Narrative
If you are using PowerPoint to brief your executive, one effective way to make sure you are telling a story is to use the top line of each slide to build that narrative sequence; each slide is headed with a full sentence that moves the story forward. The data on the rest of the slide supports that story.
All too often we do the opposite – we start with the data, and promptly get lost in the complexity and detail of it all. Without a solid storyline, sifting through the data to understand what’s important can easily become confusing.
Lost in the Data
Alternatively, sometimes SMEs aren’t clear what executives are looking for and instead of clarifying the request, resort to data dumping – hoping that “somewhere in there” their boss will surely find what they need. When analysts resort to this option, they forfeit the opportunity to influence decision making and driving positive outcomes in their organizations.
The expertise and knowledge in our federal workforce are critical components in making wise decisions for the future. Concisely communicating all those insights is a frequently overlooked skill – and more important than ever.
Loretta Cooper is a Senior Consultant at Wheelhouse Group. She is an ICF Certified Executive and Team Coach (PCC) and an accomplished consulting professional with more than 12 years of private and public sector experience. Loretta comes to consulting after nearly two decades in network broadcasting. As an award-winning, Washington-based, National Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, Loretta (aka Lauren Rogers) had the opportunity to observe leaders in every sphere of influence – political, government, corporate, activist – and learn from their strategy successes and failures. She is married, the mother to two fabulous young men (just ask!), and enjoys long walks, jet skis, good books, and knitting.