On building a better briefing

How you convey a message is just as important as the message itself, whether you're rolling out a new product or explaining corporate strategy. Here's my advice on getting it right.

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Like many you, I take part in a lot of videoconference meetings each week. Mine are almost always briefings where a company wants to impart knowledge about a product or service to analysts or reporters. Some of these companies build their own tool with features they don’t use, features that would make the experience better for me and deliver results for them. 

This week, I’m here to discuss what would improve videoconferencing tools for meetings that are non-collaborative but can still address audience questions timely. It’s true for companies rolling out new products, and it’s true for corporate execs trying to convey new strategies.

The pause that refreshes — content control

Some briefing tools can stop, rewind, and review material even during a live event. I’m not a speed typist and people tend to talk very quickly. If I can’t stop and go back to pick up something I’ve missed, I’m likely to get it wrong or miss it entirely.  Being able to control the speed of the content I’m seeing is critical to understanding content and recording it.

Automatic notes, please

While several tools have an automatic note-taking feature that’s supposed to capture major points or a text record of what was said, they aren’t used. No one seems to want to turn this feature on in a briefing. Again, this capability could help ensure I fully capture what’s said and let me cut and paste quotes accurately to make the points I want to make. 

Shhhhh. Automatic volume control

Presenters don’t all speak at the same level or in the same tone of voice. You can have one speaker who is yelling at the audience followed by someone who prefers a whisper. We have the capability to automatically adjust the volume of inbound content, yet it’s rarely used. This detracts from the briefing, making it more likely a critical point or comment is missed. (I should add: speakers should rehearse, and noise cancellation needs to be active to reduce distractions.

In-line Q&As?

Everyone has questions during a briefing, but not everyone gets answers. Often, we’re promised that, if our questions aren’t answered, someone will get back to us later. This must be an inside joke, because those answers are rarely delivered. Questions should be answered as they come up so they’re in context, the person gets the answer when they need it, and people that aren’t getting answers (and are likely upset) actually get them. 

Share your slides

Slides should be downloadable from the presentation itself. That way, they — and the images in the slides — can serve as a reference while you’re writing. Several times when I’ve set out to write, the pictures I’ve needed are nowhere to be found, and those on the web may have IP ownership issues. On a side note, if a presentation doesn’t have slides, you run the risk of your audience missing major points; providing a written summary, at a minimum, would be incredibly helpful. 

Base the agenda on the message you want to convey

This isn’t about the tool so much as the process. The agenda for briefings should be based on the message you want to deliver. Those laying out the agenda should first write up what they’d like to see published and then craft the agenda to create that outcome. This effort will highlight what needs to be shared, what doesn’t need to be shared, and fill in any information gaps.

Engineering-heavy companies like to over-execute on speeds and feeds, and under-execute on customer value, yet analysts and writers tend to focus on customer value — not detailed specs.  Most readers aren’t technical; they’re more interested in how a product will solve their problems.

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was a premiere pitch master: he focused on why you should care about something more than on specs. Learning from that master would help a lot.

You’ve got the tools; use them

It often seems like the goal of a briefing is to just get through it, but the goal should be to get out the message you want. To do that, your audience needs some control over the content, notes need to be automatically generated, speakers need to be understandable, questions need to be answered, materials need to be immediately available, and the agenda should be tightly tied to the coverage you want.

In journalism we are taught that the why is more important than the what; even more important is “why you should care.” This last is almost universally omitted from most briefings. Instead, they are long on what was done and short on why. Whoever fixes this process will undoubtedly see better results. 

Nothing I’ve noted here is revolutionary, and most of these features already exist in many of the products in use. We have the technology to do this. It just needs to be properly used. 

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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