The ability to provide well-crafted, effectively delivered oral presentations is often a close second to being a strong analytic writer in the rank order of skills required to become a successful analyst. Unfortunately, being a great writer does not guarantee you’ll be an equally impressive briefer. Sure, the skills that allow you to conceptualize, research, and write transfer directly to the task of preparing the analytic content of your briefing, but they don’t help with the two critical skills unique to briefing: delivering that content in front of others in a compelling fashion and using visuals that enhance your message.
I’ve worked with plenty of analysts who were strong writers but weak briefers. They could compose a wonderful one-page memo for the president but couldn’t stand in front of their counterparts from another agency and deliver a competent, confident presentation. Because they couldn’t brief effectively, they weren’t well-rounded analysts, which often slowed their promotions. Worse, their poor briefing skills diminished their executive presence, so they came across as less competent than they actually were. You can still make it as an analyst if you’re an exceptional writer and so-so briefer—thus my use of the word should vice must in the title of this post—but this weakness will limit your interactions with senior customers and hamstring your career.
What’s the key to becoming an effective analytic briefer? It’s all about mastering three skills.
1. Crafting an effective analytic message.
Here’s the good news I mentioned above: putting together strong analytic content for a briefing is no different than it is when writing. Your goal remains to get your customer to pay attention to, understand, and believe your message. As with writing, you must be concise, provide a clear analytic bottom line up front, support your analysis with credible evidence, tailor your message to the needs and interests of your customer, and speak at their level of understanding. The difference lies in the medium you use to present your analysis.
2. Creating complimentary visuals.
For many analysts, that medium is the dreaded slide deck. I work with some private-sector analysts whose companies ban the use of visuals altogether. I appreciate that this is a response to the all-too-common phenomenon of “death by PowerPoint,” but since everyone is to some extent a visual learner, denying an audience any visuals during a presentation can be counterproductive. So I am going to argue that if you have the opportunity to use supporting visuals, do it, but do it right. You want to present your audience with something to look at that helps them understand and remember your message without overloading their senses or taking their attention off of you as the presenter.
In my three-day briefing course, I share a lot of powerful tips to help students hone their visuals, and it’s always the quick-win portion of the class because most people’s slides are so terrible. In my limited space here I’m going to share one important tip for getting slides right: if your audience can’t or shouldn’t read it, delete it. There shouldn’t be any text on your slides that you don’t intend your audience to stop listening to you to read, and any such text better be in a large enough font for them to read easily. It’s that simple. If you follow this one rule, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding the most common mistake poor briefers make with their slides: they put so much text on each slide that audience members have to struggle to take it all in while trying to listen to the briefer’s narrative. This leads to sensory overload, frustration, and frankly, to ugly slides that ignore the value of whitespace in helping people’s brains process information. Don’t be that briefer. Be better.
Note that this approach requires you to delink the visuals you use when briefing with whatever you provide as a stand-alone handout. This simple idea is unfortunately too radical for some organizations to accept, thus forcing briefers to use wordy slides that cause audiences to tune out.
3. Polishing and pumping up your delivery.
Having an effective message and appropriate visuals is only two-thirds of the battle. Analysts often lose the fight in the third and most challenging step, which requires a much different skill set than sitting at a desk researching and writing: standing up in front of an audience—or in front of a webcam, as has been the case lately—and delivering an effective performance.
I use the word performance quite purposefully. My briefings improved dramatically when, later in my career, I had a short training session with actors that led to the epiphany that giving a briefing is similar to giving a live performance. If I simply try to inform my audience with a dry, straightforward recitation of my analysis, I will fail to make my message — or myself — memorable. If instead I focus on presenting my information in an interesting and unexpected way; try to engage my audience using my voice, gestures, and eye contact; and inject energy and enthusiasm into the room (as appropriate for the seriousness of the topic I’m covering, of course), I’ll have a better chance of successfully delivery my message while making a strong impression as a professional.
And now for a painfully obvious statement: a big part of giving a better performance is preparation and practice. When I started my career as an analyst, I was a terrible briefer, largely because I had no training and almost no experience. Only by forcing myself to give briefings frequently did I start improving. Look for or create opportunities to give presentations where the stakes are low—such as briefing your peers—so you’ll be ready when the stakes are higher and you have to speak in front of seniors or customers. Also, whenever you’re going to present, be sure to prepare and practice until you’re comfortable with your material, working out any kinks with your notes and visuals.
Practice will improve your competence as a briefer, but equally important, it will improve your confidence, allowing you to counter one of the greatest threats to an effective performance: nerves. Fear of public speaking haunts many analysts, and the best way to conquer it while bolstering your executive presence is practice and preparation.
If you can successfully combine the critical skills of crafting an analytic message, creating complimentary visuals, and delivering your analysis in a way that engages your audience, you will maximize your impact with customers and help others see you as a complete analyst. Now get out there and practice!