Start with the conclusion. No build-up. No grand reveal. No details. Simply and concisely state the conclusion. This is the message that the decision maker (receiver) needs to receive. Decision makers are too busy for us to present any other way.
Getting to the conclusion in the beginning also accomplishes two other things. First, it reduces the potential noise that frequently comes from the full presentation. Getting to the conclusion in the beginning also shows respect for your audience. Trust your audience’s ability to comprehend, dig deeper into the supporting information, and ask the questions they need to ask; conversely, to feel the need to ‘spoon feed’ your decision maker, who is usually in a superior position, is a true insult.
We are not bound to present chronologically or cumulatively (step-by-step sequence). We often do so because it was trained into us at an early age. Some other available sequences include topical, spatial (geography-based), paired (advantage-disadvantage, problem-solution), perspective, and magnitude (largest to smallest impact, most understood to least understood, most concrete to most abstract).
K-12 Education and The Scientific Method
Our education system from kindergarten through the twelve grade is cumulative. We accumulate knowledge and abilities that serve as building blocks for subsequent cognitive development. Our brains mature as we simultaneously gain the basic elements that enable us to understand. The approach is consistent with the saying “learning to walk is necessary before one can start to learn to run.” And while we see it universally in education, the same approach is also present in many of our youth activities from sports to musical instruments.
The Scientific Method also reinforces a tendency for cumulative or chronological presentation sequences. The eight steps of the scientific method can be summarized as forming a question, gathering information, forming a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis, interpreting results, and validating.. Technical professionals are taught to avoid drawing conclusions too soon in the process. While good in many ways, the approach ingrains a build-up approach into our technical presentations.
Put Pride Aside
Another source of using a chronological or cumulative approach in our presentation is pride. We have worked hard, worked long, and struggled through some tough issues along the way. We want decision makers to appreciate what we (individually and as a team) have done. The desire for appreciation is often more subconscious than conscious. Nevertheless, it is counterproductive. The communication is about the receiver, not the sender.
Business Communication and the Descending Climb
Dianna Booher describes “understanding a message written in this ascending format is an uphill climb.” An uphill climb is hard work. Providing the conclusions at the beginning, or the descending approach is a much easier journey because it informs quickly and clearly. Let the decision maker decide whether to climb the hill or not. In many cases, they do not.
The solution to effective communication sequences for decision makers can be described in a straightforward format. If it looks like a format similar to many Business Case Evaluations, well, it is.
Most written reports to decision makers should be no more than 2 to 4 pages. If detailed information is needed, provide it as attachments or in separate volumes. The key for the supporting information is to make the information available but not include it in the body of the report. And remember, the five fundamental graphics are needed but only one (or two) of each type. As always, provide the written report before the verbal presentation.
Decision makers are too busy for us to present in a cumulative or chronological manner. Respect your decision maker and eliminate the potential for noise in your communication. Begin your business reports and presentations with the conclusion.
Communicating with FINESSE is a community of technical professionals dedicated to improving communication with decision makers.