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WRITING AN EXECUTIVE BRIEFING
Introduction: At some point during your career you will be asked to brief an executive audience on some work-related issue or project. The briefing may be in writing, in person (e.g. a live or oral presentation), or both. Below are some guidelines for executive briefings that may help you be more successful.
The Purpose of an Executive Briefing
You may be asked to give an executive briefing that is purely informational in nature. It is much more likely, however, that the purpose of your briefing will be to obtain something from the executive audience. You might seek to obtain:
· permission to carry out a project or a policy/process change;
· the resources needed to carry out a project or action; or
· something else that only the executives of your organization can provide.
What do we mean by Executive?
Executives are persons who possess the highest level of decision-making authority in an organization. Executives typically set organizational missions and goals; decide major policy initiatives; and have the final say in allocating the organization’s resources.
In the private sector, an organization’s executives (sometimes referred to as “executive officers”) will include the President/CEO (Chief Executive Officer), the Senior Vice Presidents, and such persons as the CFO (Chief Financial Officer). In the public sector, executives may have similar titles; they may also have different titles depending upon the nature and structure of the organization. For example, in a local law enforcement organization the Sheriff or Police Chief is certainly an executive officer, as are any senior offices to whom the Sheriff or Chief has delegated a high level of decision-making authority.
Characteristics of an Executive Audience
In preparing a briefing for an executive audience, keep in mind that executives have certain characteristics that influence various aspects of your briefing.
- Executives are very busy people with a lot of demands on their time.
- Executives are used to thinking strategically (the “Big Picture” rather than the localized operational details).
- Executives tend to evaluate ideas and actions as they relate to the Vision, Mission, and Strategic Plans of the organization.
- Executives have a bottom-line orientation.
- Executives are not easily fooled.
What do these characteristics mean for you, the person preparing and/or delivering the briefing?
- Your briefing will be shorter than a document or presentation prepared for a different type of audience (e.g. an audience of your peers, or of specialists in the subject).
- Your briefing will have fewer details in it.
- Your briefing will show that the ideas or recommendations in it are congruent with your organization’s Mission and Vision.
- Your briefing will cover the financial and/or resource implications of your request or proposal.
- Your briefing will have to be accurate, well-argued, and supported by evidence or data.
Let’s look at each of these items separately.
Length/Duration: If you hand an executive a 60-page briefing document, chances are very good that she will not read it. It’s not that she’s rude or dismissive of your work; it’s simply that she has neither the time nor the inclination to do so. Furthermore, as an executive she is used to quickly evaluating information, making a decision, and then moving on to the next item. The same thing is true of a “live” presentation; if you prepare an MSPowerPoint slideshow with 45 slides and ask for an hour in which to present it, the executive audience will likely stop listening to you after your fourth or fifth slide. It is your responsibility to present the key features of your proposal or recommendation in a short, succinct manner.
Level of Detail: In your position within the organization you and your colleagues no doubt understand and apply a very large amount of detailed knowledge to get work done. You may be tempted to include such details in your executive briefing on the grounds that they are important to the overall argument. Remember, though, that the executives in your organization are several levels removed from purely operational matters. Too much detailed information may confuse or distract them from your main points.
Mission and Vision: An organization’s mission and vision statements are among the tools with which executives evaluate the merits of a proposal or recommendation. In many cases, the executives are evaluated by how well they achieve the carrying out of the mission and vision. In your briefing you will need to address the mission and vision and, if appropriate, demonstrate how your proposal or recommendation aligns with, and helps to fulfill, the mission and vision.
Financial and Resource Implications: The ideas you present in your briefing may seem like the greatest things in the world to you, so great that they should be acted upon immediately regardless of cost or impact to the organization. Keep in mind, though, that the organization’s executives are the ones who have to sign the checks, pay the bills, etc. In your briefing you will have to let them know how much your proposal is going to cost, or how many resources will have to be added or diverted to carry out your recommendation, so that they can weigh the costs/benefits as part of the decision-making process.
Argumentation and Accuracy: People who rise to executive levels within organizations are likely to be very smart. Further, they’re also likely to be sensitive to logic and to the appropriate use of evidence. If you try to fool them, they will know. If you try to manipulate data to make a situation look more attractive or beneficial than it really is, they’ll catch on quickly. If you try to make up an answer to a question they pose to you, they’ll figure it out and you will lose credibility in their eyes. Therefore, the arguments you make in your briefing must be solid, and the data you present in support of those arguments must be accurate and properly presented.
Guidelines for Preparing a Written Executive Briefing
- Keep it as short as possible. If you have no choice but to provide a great deal of information (or if you were specifically asked to do so), then prepare an Executive Summary for your briefing document. An Executive Summary is a short (typically four paragraphs of four sentences each) description of the main points in the document, for example:
- The Problem or Situation to be Resolved or Addressed;
- The Proposed Solution or Recommendation;
- The Costs of the Solution or Recommendation;
- The Benefit(s) to the Organization of the Solution or Recommendation.
- Don’t overuse charts, tables, and graphs. These items are, of course, useful for displaying large amounts of data. They are more effective, however, when used sparingly. Also, be sure that the charts, tables, and graphs can be read and easily understood when placed in a written document.
- Make the document as “readable” as possible. By this we mean apply the general principles of good business writing, for example:
- Use an appropriate font and font size;
- Leave a suitable amount of “white space” on the pages (don’t use very narrow margins or try to cram too much text onto a page);
- Avoid long sentences.
- Avoid overuse of the passive voice.
- Use informative section headings (and make sure to provide a Table of Contents for them).
- Use “vertical lists” for long lists (i.e. more than three items in the list)
- Provide references for any documents or sources quoted in the briefing. This seems pretty obvious, but a surprisingly large number of people forget to do this, especially when they’re in a hurry to complete the briefing document.
- Present the main recommendation, proposal, or feature of your briefing early in the document. If your briefing is about a recommended policy change or purchase of equipment, state that on the first page of your document (and in the first paragraph of your Executive Summary, if you prepare one).
Guidelines for Preparing an Oral Executive Briefing
- If you use a presentation medium such as MSPowerPoint, treat your presentation as if it were a document. In other words, apply the four guidelines listed above to the preparation of your PowerPoint slides.
- Do not give your audience documents (including copies of your slides) before your presentation. If you do, you run the risk that your audience will start reading the documents rather than paying attention to your briefing. You can hand out written materials after your presentation.
- Be prepared for questions. If your presentation is effective, it will likely trigger questions from the executive audience. Have material with you that you can consult when trying to answer a question. If you don’t know the answer and don’t have the appropriate material with you, say so and offer to get the answer for the questioner as soon as possible.
- Be respectful but confident. As the presenter of the briefing, you are viewed as the expert on the contents. Make eye contact with the audience; control the flow of the presentation (e.g. stipulate that you would prefer questions to be held until the end of the presentation); and don’t make apologies for being unable to answer a question right on the spot.
Conclusion: Writing for, and presenting to, an executive audience is challenging but sometimes necessary for you to succeed in your profession. Be mindful of the characteristics of the executive audience and shape your briefing accordingly.
Refer to the executive briefing module for detailed instructions.
Students shall research current emerging issues in public safety administration, to include capabilities, vulnerabilities, and needs for a state or local government or private entity. As an administrator, prepare a three- to five-page paper (using APA format) to brief your local executive (private or public official).
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