Quit Dumbing Down Your Executive Communications

Conventional wisdom asserts that all executives are extremely busy, and never have the time to digest the details. Yet trimming the communications “fat” is likely doing more harm than good; for both you and your superiors.

Less Isn’t Always More

We’ve all heard the saying less is more. Fewer tools, fewer hours commuting, and so on often equates to an improved experience. Yet when it comes to language– especially digital communications such as email or Slack– sometimes less is, well, less.

I’ve worked in business technology and engineering for over 20 years. One thing I see over and over again are people over-simplifying content for their executives. When I ask why they do such things, I receive responses such as “executives are busy and don’t have time for all the weedy details!” Perhaps there’s some truth to that statement, but brevity isn’t doing your boss any favors. In fact, it’s probably confusing her while creating more work for yourself in the long-run. In this article, I’ll explain why this approach is flawed, and provide some tips to gauge the right level to detail to provide and when to provide them.

Confessions of a CEO

With good intentions at heart, most knowledge workers trim the conversational fat in order to keep the information succinct for the poor “time starved executive.” What actually happens is the executive is provided information with major gaps, which allows ambiguity to seep in like holes in the bow of once sea-worthy vessel.

An active CEO once told me that much of the information provided to him is either fragmented and/or biased. What he meant was that information is often:

  • Fragmented – It only provides a piece of the puzzle, and it’s unclear if the intent within the communications (be it digital or face to face) is a knee-jerk reaction or is part of a proactive strategy. Common examples include deal summaries or presentations with budgetary asks.
  • Biased – There is perceived to be some degree of slant or spin on the communication; perhaps due to the origin of the communication or to further an agenda. Examples here include a frugal CFO forwarding a subset of an article on imminent recession, or a CMO summarizing a keynote speech touting a particular CRM platform.

Providing executives with the right amount of detail, at the right time, may be more art than science. However, understanding why executives need detail is the first step in the journey.

The Fallout from Meager Material

Communications material can be digital or real-world communication, but generally, we can say they fall along the lines of:

  • Formal presentations – Formal presentations provide detailed overviews of strategies and plans, and there is typically an explicit ask for the chief executive to “buy off” and/or agree to the idea. Presentations are often conducted live via face-to-face or video conference sessions.
  • Informal chat, email, and other digital communications – Asynchronous communication channels that lack visible human body language and tone of voice. There is an overload of this type of communication nowadays, and it’s used for both delivering important information as well as passing along less critical info.

Whenever information is shared with an executive, questions that come to mind are: what am I [the executive] supposed to do with this information? Are you merely sharing information, or do you seek some type of approval? Do you need moral support, or is it dollars you seek? Is this a summary of a problem, and if so, is there a solution yet?

Providing only “high level” summaries may confuse executives, leaving them with more questions than answers. This confusion then results in more scrutiny on the decision, more meetings to discuss the decision, and of course more frustration from the information sharer who simply wants to move forward with business as usual.

Finding the Balance Between Brevity and Babbling

Getting your point across with the right amount of detail, especially when multiple executives are involved can be tricky. Here are some tips to keep top of mind when putting your material in front of decision makers:

  1. Summary and details – Start with the tried-and-true executive summary (or “TL;DR” in high-tech companies). However, don’t stop there. Provide additional details should the executive want to dig for deeper justification of the proposal.
  2. Err on the side of over-communication – Keep the executive summary tight, but don’t be afraid to go verbose on the details. Your audience may be unfamiliar with jargon, so spell things and don’t assume people remember content from the past; even if you presented directly with them.
  3. Make your presentation part of a journey or narrative – Executives want assurance that your proposal “fits” into a broader strategy. Similar to a user journey, you want to use the same language, metrics, and so on to reassure your listener that this is part of a grand plan and not a reactive activity taking the company in a haphazard direction.
  4. Know your audience – Tailor your communications to your listener’s preferences.  Some executives compose incredibly verbose emails, and as such are probably comfortable reading comprehensive materials. Other executives prefer the brass tacks approach of reading and send short, to-the-point messages. Again, when providing summary and details, you can favor one or the other depending on your listener’s proclivity.

Providing the right material at the right time really means fewer questions, faster decisions, and increased trust from your superiors over time. We’re all in a huge hurry these days, endlessly multitasking and constantly trying to do more in less time. Yet time and time again, I’ve seen the power of providing comprehensive information up-front. In contrast to spoon-feeding fragments of information to executives as a time, providing the broader narrative, and how the immediate ask fits into the narrative conveys maturity, strategy, and a sense of how to execute on both near- and long-term strategies.