Whether you’re asked to brief your boss on important issues or data, or if you simply need to communicate a complex idea to them in a way that’s respectful of their (and your) time, it can feel as though you’re put on the spot. The concise bullet points you organised in your head are nowhere in sight, but time is ticking, and as result you might end up spewing an assortment of sentences that may or may not be close to relevant.
If this is an area of your professional life that you’d like to improve, Grant T. Harris, who has briefed everyone from presidents to corporate leaders, provides us with some tips in an article in the Harvard Business Review. Here’s what to know.
Look for the ‘crucial nodder’
Is there a person your boss is always glancing at when they hear new information? As if they’re looking for someone else to process or approve it? According to Harris, that’s their “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.
Harris advises identifying that person, and even before your presentation starts, ask them for input on how to approach the subject with your boss. (Also, to clarify, “room” in this case is probably Zoom, so ideally it’ll be a situation where you can see your boss and colleagues, and their facial expressions.)
Understand your boss’s nonverbal cues
After you’ve worked with someone for a while, you can get pretty skilled at knowing whether an intense almost-squinty stare from them means they’re deeply interested, or that they can’t believe you’re wasting their time. Pay attention and learn their body language to figure out what they do when they want someone to wrap something up or go further into detail, Harris advises. Then, as you’re presenting, keep an eye out for these clues and read the room accordingly.
Figure out how your boss works through information
Is your boss the type that will read every line of something and have some sort of comment? Or do they glance over something and only address something if it’s wrong? Determining how your boss processes material can mean the difference between being anxious the whole time (assuming that they hate you or your work) and being able to present your information in a meaningful dialogue.
Stay on track
There’s a time and a place for tangents and fun anecdotes, but briefing your boss on important information usually isn’t that time. But also remember that you may not be the one deviating from the subject, Harris explains:
If the conversation gets off track, a question causes the meeting to digress, or someone starts to rant about a pet topic, pre-plan several ways to redirect the conversation and get what you need. 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.
Only add to the discussion if necessary
Once you’ve finished your presentation and some sort of conversation begins among others, Harris recommends letting them hash it out, without feeling compelled to add your two cents or show them that you know are familiar with the topic. He explains:
The discussion has taken off and now you need to be exceedingly strategic about whether and when to chime in. The executive is engaging others in the room or thinking aloud. By speaking at the wrong moment, you risk derailing the line of thought or annoying your boss.
Of course, it goes without saying that you should know what you’re talking about and do your research ahead of time, but once you’re in the room with your boss, so much of your ability to effectively communicate comes down to reading and responding to nonverbal cues, staying on course, and knowing when to stop talking and focus on listening.