Notes on presentations to get permission from leadership.

Business communication is communication with a purpose. And although each time we aim to communicate our purpose has specificity and nuance, in my experience they all fall into one of three main buckets:

  • Get permission from leadership.
  • Motivate change within a team.
  • Sell ideas, products, services.

Each of these types of communication has had ample research, study, and a mountain of advice on how to be most effective. Attempting to cover all three in a single blog post would be a daunting task. So, today, I’m going to focus in on getting permission from leadership.

Almost everyone has a boss. And almost everyone needs some level of permission from that boss from time to time. And while your idea, initiative, or request might seem straightforward and clear in its value to you, bosses sometimes struggle to see our wisdom. Perhaps they are distracted or impatient, or just plain grumpy. But likely the brilliance of our idea doesn’t shine through for them because we haven’t framed it in terms of their worldview. We need to consider all of the ideas, pressures, and constraints that are rattling around inside our bosses heads and make sure that our proposal doesn’t cause conflict.

Here is some of the collective wisdom that ThoughtForm has gathered on how to best present ideas to get permission from leadership.

Avoid risk. One job of leaders is to steer clear of unnecessary risk. When you show an array of choices, make sure the choice you prefer doesn’t appear to be the most risky. If your proposal reduces any of the risks that leadership cares about, highlight that.

Explain how your proposal extends values or commitments that the leaders already have in play. For example, if the company has succeeded with a policy of leveraging the production facilities of partners; now, describe how you are going to leverage the intellectual property of a partner. A familiar idea extended into new territory.

Connect with the big picture. Frame your opportunity in terms of leadership’s long-term vision. Show how your idea fits with their big picture. If decreasing operating costs is a long-term goal, be sure to highlight the specific ways your initiative is going to lower operating costs.

Create bite-sized morsels. Break down your proposal into a series of increasingly larger commitments. Give leadership an opportunity to approve a small-scale initial phase and later say yes to a larger, riskier phase. See Robert Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice for more about the power of escalating commitments.

Distill your proposal into a memorable story. Dramatize the risks that will be eliminated. Make the peril or the promise vivid. A simple story describing the world of the call-center operator or salesperson and how the initiative will fix problems can make it easier to recall and retell the essence of the initiative.

Use stories to reshape thinking. A good story can help an audience understand and remember complex topics. Even better, a story can shift how people think about a topic by changing their opinions, values, priorities, and passions.

If you’re interested in learning more about persuading leaders, I suggest checking out the following books:

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky, is a lively and funny guide full of useful and practical advice about all kinds of corporate communication. The authors believe that it is smart to cultivate your own voice and to tell stories that are distinct from the bland, gray, corporate norm.

In Made to Stick the brothers Chip and Dan Heath take a close look at the qualities that make messages engaging and memorable. They urge you to make your messages simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-like.

The Story Factor, by Annette Simmons, explores the power of stories to influence. For Simmons, businesses are social systems and stories are needed to lubricate these relationships. Stories can make things clear and motivate in ways that data, bullet points, and directives can’t match. The book offers ideas about the types of stories to tell, when to make use of them, and how to tell stories so people listen.

In The Springboard, Stephen Denning describes how he discovered the power of stories to help an audience visualize how an organization, community, or complex system may change.

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, by Gary Klein, is an intriguing book full of stories about the high-pressure decisions made by firemen, air-traffic controllers, and nurses. Klein explores the role of stories in effective decision making and how stories promote learning for both the audience and the storyteller.

In The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking, and Problem Solving, author Barbara Minto details how to follow that age-old advice “have a logical order” by starting with the biggest idea first and then adding supporting claims, evidence, and buttressing details until your audience buys in to your original premise.


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