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Communicating to Decision-Makers

June 1, 2020
When preparing to communicate data, think through who will be involved in its approval, and tailor your approach to appeal to them. KNOW YOUR DECISION-MAKER • Consider carefully what different […]

When preparing to communicate data, think through who will be involved in its approval, and tailor your approach to appeal to them.


• Consider carefully what different audiences need to hear, and how they want to hear it.
• Whenever your audience changes, so should the language you use.
• The higher their level of authority, the more structured and brief your approach should be.
• You should also be prepared for rigorous and intrusive questioning.

Executive decision-makers are the toughest customers, and the ones people are generally the most intent to learn how to appeal to. Once you know the best approaches for persuading them, you can easily draw upon these elements for recommendations you make to anyone.

Your decision-maker might be a shareholder, customer, or even a union representative. I’ve chosen to use internal decision-making for the purpose of this article.

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Use familiar language.
To get your own team or peers on board, you need to speak your geek. You probably already have common goals and a common language. The people closes to you organizationally may already understand why you’re making the recommendation, and some of them may have helped you craft it, and already be on board. It’s okay to use the visual and verbal shorthand your team uses on a day-to-day basis. Acronyms, departmental verbiage, and complex charts, are all okay, just as long as they are familiar to all involved.

Be exhaustive by including an appendix.
Managers must be confident that recommendations are well-informed and defensible. If they’re going to take action on them, their reputations should not be on the line.

They not going to risk taking a hit for a poorly constructed idea. You need to show that you’ve done your homework, and present your thinking clearly.

Keep you recommendation crisp, but for your boss attach a comprehensive appendix that includes your research and any other supporting evidence. If you do a good job, your boss may even sponsor your idea by having you present it to the executive team.

Write brief, logical, rigorous recommendations.
We’re all busy, but still it’s hard to comprehend just how busy executive are. You must craft a recommendation for them with a tight structure that is brief and easily skimmable. If you are presenting to them and have been given 30 minutes, take 15 so they can ask questions. Be extremely clear, and prepare to be grilled.

Also, tailor the way you communication to a style they prefer. They all have particular preferences. Your approach should match their communication style, not yours.

Time is short for everyone, but it is especially so for executives. They have a lot riding on how they spend their time, with my competing demands. They must drive the  strategic agenda, stay on top of markets, and ensure that customers, employees, shareholders, and boards, are happy.

Executives bear a mental and emotional load of responsibility that would scare most people. And, if time is the most valuable commodity they have, people who communicate with them clearly become valuable. How well others research and construct recommendations can give them back time.

I know a woman who reported directly to the CEO at a public company. She was so trusted, she could text a short, well-structured recommendation to the CEO in the company jet and get a reply with a decision almost immediately.

My friend no longer needed to provide the CEO with backup data, and the CEO no longer questions the process of getting to the recommendation.


These habits of some famous CEOs indicate how busy they are, and how disciplined they must be with their time.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, begins each day at 4:30 a.m. to keep up with sending and responding to emails.

Indra Nooyi, Former CEO of Pepsi, authorized her assistant to give her children permission to do things like go to a friend’s house after school.

Shellye Archambeau, as a board member at Verizon and Nordstrom, saved 3 hours a week by cutting off most of her hair so she could spend less time attending to it.

Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin, books time with family in his work calendar.


Each executive has personal preferences for how they receive and process information. For example:

If an executive want you to make a stand-and-deliver presentation, make sure you also have a Slidedoc. They might ask for details afterward.

A Slidedoc uses presentation software to make a visual document that can be easily skimmed and understood quickly, with clear hierarchy.

Less Visual, Spoken: CONVERSATION
If they prefer a conversation, DO NOT wing it. Think through the key points you need to make, and structure your discussion well. This creates a mental guide of what to say.

Less Visual, Written: ONE-PAGER
A single-page recommendation is a great attachment to an email or complement to a conversation. This should be a very tight, visual overview of your thinking so you have time for discussion.

Less Visual, Written: TEXT OR E-MAIL
Once you become a trusted resource, an executive may have you send recommendations by text or email, which must be succinct, well-structured, and well-written.


An executive makes many decisions every day. Sometimes, they are made briskly, but other decisions require deeper thought.

If you are asked to present a recommendation to an executive, or perhaps the whole executive team at one of their meetings, you must be prepared to be interrupted before you finish — way before you finish.

Isn’t that rude? No. Most executives are in positions of leadership because they can swiftly assess information and challenge it well. As they begin to get the gist of your recommendation, they immediately start seeing pros and cons. They interrupt you to get answers as fast as they can to key questions prompted by their deep business knowledge. In an effort to be expedient, they will cut in to gain clarity on the full picture of what you’re suggesting, and how well you’ve thought it through.

It’s as if the moment they hear your fundamental idea, it forms a picture in their minds, but the picture is blurry in parts, or has some gaps, so they ask questions to fill those in.

A sponsor helps you understand:
• The strong opinions executive have that might be out of your purview.
• Where they may want to dive deep, and which kinds of information should be provided if they do.
•The counterarguments they must pose, and how you should prepare for them.

While you must rigorously trim down the information you present, you should also conduct extensive research to support your recommendation. Make sure you have a good mental command of it so you can call it to mind quickly under pressure.

The consequences of even one failed decision by an executive could bring unsurmountable internal and external chaos, or even epic public humiliation for themselves and the company.

Let them interrupt you.
"The inability to make decisions is one of the principal reasons executives fail." (John C. Maxwell)

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About the Author: Nancy Duarte is CEO of Duarte, Inc., a large creative firm in Silicon Valley, with an additional office in Brooklyn, New York, and author of Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story (Ideapress, September 2019). For more information, please visit

This article contains excerpts from Nancy’s book, Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story.

About the Author

Human Network Contributor

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