by David Street, project manager and Caleb Weitz, chief of staff, Office of the County Administrator, Loudoun County, Virginia
One key skill you must learn in your local government career is how to present complex, technical information to decision-makers in a way that allows them to make a decision without becoming experts themselves. The earlier you begin to hone this skill, the better off you will be, because how information is presented to decision-makers, elected, appointed, or otherwise, can lead to significant organizational or community impacts. We all have experiences we can draw on of noteworthy presentations that went well… or not so well. Here are four tips to effectively brief decision-makers and make sure your presentations set the stage for the best possible discussion and action.
1. Know your issue – its ups and its downs.
Our county administrator is fond of making the point that there really is no such thing as being over-prepared. While you should strive to focus your preparation to topics, questions, and issues that are likely to come up in discussion, there’s a good case to be made for having a little extra information in your back pocket.
Last year, our county began the implementation of short-term residential rental regulations, which required us to be aware of and prepared to address questions about taxation policies, travel and tourism issues, zoning and land use concerns, affordable housing issues, and several other topics not directly tied to the decision in front of the governing body that evening. Because of our comprehensive preparation, we had both a successful discussion with our elected officials and a successful outcome for the county.
2. Know your audience – their perspective, needs, and biases.
Our public information officer once pointed out during a discussion around a complex issue that, as the subject matter expert, you have the both the blessing and curse of highly detailed knowledge. This is a perspective-changing concept to understand and apply in your work. The blessing is when you appear knowledgeable and impart quality information to those you are briefing; but the curse is that, due to your expertise, you can easily end up too far into the weeds for your audience, thereby bogging down the decision-making process. For formal settings like meetings of the governing body, it’s worth having an awareness of what other issues are on the agenda and if/how they interact with your topic. In our experience, elected officials are often more quick than staff to draw connections between different items on an agenda.
3. Know the venue – and tailor your presentation to it.
Within the field of public administration and especially in local government, the venue information being presented can be just as important as the information itself. Think of the variety of settings where you interact with executive management or elected officials: business meetings, individual briefings, community events… the list goes on.
We often brief upcoming items for our board of supervisors agenda in a weekly meeting with the county administrator and other senior staff. For this meeting, the goal is to ensure quality for staff reports that are transmitted to the governing body for upcoming meeting agendas. The focus of the briefing is almost completely on outstanding issues and problem areas with the reports instead of the vast majority of the work products, which are usually in great shape. When presenting these same items to the governing body, a more holistic approach to the entirety of the item, both positives and outstanding issues, is utilized instead.
4. Know what you don’t know – and that it’s okay to not know it!
One of the most powerful phrases you can use is “I don’t know.” Being unafraid to use it signals honesty and self-awareness, but the most important part of that phrase is often left unsaid. The complete phrase should be “I don’t know, but I can work to find out.” Appropriate and timely follow-up to answer the outstanding question is important to both keep your decision-makers informed and maintain your own credibility.
When you work closely with senior decision-makers and elected officials, accuracy of information being provided is paramount. Too often, we have seen overly eager staff who offer to assist, and end up talking themselves into a corner when they have incomplete knowledge of a subject, which can be very damaging to the organization’s credibility. It’s important to note that you should be prepared to answer questions that you can reasonably expect to be asked regarding your topic (see point #1).
At the end of the day, you will never be able to completely predict what questions will arise during a briefing or what path the discussion will take, but by knowing your issue, audience, venue, and knowledge gaps, you can make sure that you are as prepared as possible to facilitate a positive decision and deal with whatever comes your way as a result.
What else should students and early career professionals know when presenting information to decision makers? Share with us on our Ask and Answer page!