The art of briefing a senior executive: How to do it right

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Whether briefings occur in person or virtually, interpersonal dynamics determine how well one communicates the right message under pressure — whether to the president of the United States, a C-level executive or any leader.

Grant Harris, an adjunct professor of global management at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, offers several pieces of guidance in a piece for Harvard Business Review

"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," he writes. 

1. Identify whose opinions the leader values most. Mr. Harris refers to these individuals as "crucial nodders," meaning their affirmation of a message is critical to how the boss receives it. Before presenting an idea, figure out who these people are and consult them in advance. 

2. Read the leader's body language. If familiar with the senior executive, one may already read cues telling whether they want more detail or information sped up. If not, consult people who regularly brief and interact with them and ask about the most important "tells."

3. Learn how the leader interacts with material. Understanding how the leader absorbs information will help you effectively convey it and respond to pushback. 

4. Once in the briefing, read the room versus your notes. "You should know your material cold by this point, so that you're not fumbling with your notes; your mental energy should be focused on reading the room, looking for openings and watching out for pitfalls," says Mr. Harris. 

5. Be ready to get back on track. If the conversation somehow goes on a tangent, be prepared with several ways to redirect. "It's a rare talent to be dogged but deft at the same time, and of course, you don't want to look like a stiff or a robot. In a fast-paced work environment, though, meetings often get interrupted or cut short. Try not to deviate or raise unnecessary details to reduce the chance that a briefing will be interrupted before your ask is addressed," says Mr. Harris. 

Carefully weigh opportunities to speak up versus remain silent. Not speaking at the wrong time is often just as important as saying the right thing at the right time, advises Mr. Harris. Be strategic about whether and when to chime in.

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