Briefing Lessons from Jack Ryan
Tom Clancy’s best known fictional hero has resurfaced – this time in the new movie, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – about a young Jack Ryan who uncovers a terrorist plot targeting the financial sector. Clancy, who died last year, wrote seventeen best-selling novels, including The Hunt for Red October, where Jack Ryan first appeared.
Clancy was known for his incredibly detailed and technically accurate espionage and military science plots. But there’s a scene in The Hunt for Red October that shows Clancy also knew a thing or two about effective communication – specifically, how to conduct a successful briefing – something most of us in the business world need to be able to do.
In the scene, CIA analyst Jack Ryan is at the White House to convince the President and others that the Soviet Union’s newest submarine with their most trusted and skilled naval officer at the helm is attempting to defect to the United States. Ryan argues that this explains why nearly the entire Soviet Atlantic fleet is on the move – to find and destroy the sub.
Know the room:
Ryan’s briefing would take place in the Situation Room, and Ryan was shown the room before the briefing began. He’d be speaking from a lectern, and his slides (yes, 35mm slides were used in the 1980s) were already set up. At the lectern were a wireless control for the projector, his choice of pointers, and a glass of water.
▪ Get a first-hand look at your room before presenting. If this isn’t possible, have someone describe it in detail for you.
▪ Don’t be afraid to use a lectern. It gave Ryan, and it can give you, instant authority. And although it can be a barrier between you and your audience, you can occasionally move from behind it to get closer to your audience (e.g., during Q&A).
▪ Test the equipment. If there’s a technical glitch during your briefing, most audiences will give you about ten minutes to correct the problem; after that, their patience turns to frustration. Have Plan B ready.
▪ Have water on hand.
Right before the briefing started, Ryan was asked by the CIA Director whether he was nervous. “Yes, sir, I sure am,” he replied.
▪ Most presenters experience some anxiety. That’s OK. The goal is not to eliminate it (that could lead to a flat, uninspired delivery), but to control it. Channel that nervousness out in the form of energy (gesturing helps you do that).
▪ Practice your delivery three times, aloud, on your feet, into a recording device.
▪ Engage in positive “self-talk.” Most people approach their presentation thinking about all the things that could go wrong. Instead, tell yourself that you are there to share your knowledge, ideas and expertise with an audience that is eager to hear you and will benefit from listening. That’s a different mindset.
Plan your work; work your plan:
Ryan’s notes “were full of errors and scribbled corrections.” (That was a “no-no.”)
▪ Last-minute changes are rarely delivered as effectively as material you’ve practiced.
▪ Use notes that are typewritten (a readable typeface such as Times New Roman – 16-point or larger) and double- or triple-spaced. Number your pages (in case you drop them).
Know your audience:
Ryan knew who’d be in the audience. In some cases, he also knew their reputations. More importantly, many in the audience knew of him through his impressive past reports on terrorism. And it didn’t hurt that the CIA Director made sure some audience members were aware of some of Ryan’s other accomplishments.
▪ Who is your audience? Why are they there? What is their interest and knowledge level? What are their information needs and wants? Are there any sensitivities in the audience you ought to be aware of?
▪ Leverage credibility transference. Get a respected colleague – someone you know and who knows you – on board ahead of time with what you’re saying or proposing.
Nail the content:
After stating his name and the reason for the briefing, Ryan provided some background information – details about the sub, including its unique features and capabilities, along with a profile of its captain. Then he focused on his theory on what the captain of Red October was attempting to do, which in turn explained the unprecedented movement of Soviet ships. The briefing was clear, compelling and concise. Excluding Q&A, it lasted 15 minutes.
▪ Have a strong opening. The one part of any briefing guaranteed to get audience attention is the opening. But you have only about one minute to show you have something important or interesting to say. Don’t squander this critical moment on the ordinary or mundane.
▪ Analogies and stories are among the most powerful tools of persuasion. Use them.
▪ Beware the “curse of knowledge” – having too much information and sharing it all. Less is more. (The attention span of most audiences is about 15-20 minutes.)
▪ Should your most powerful arguments come first or last? It usually doesn’t matter (unless you’re interrupted or time becomes an issue). But consider voluntarily addressing opposing viewpoints; it’s a way to bolster credibility.
▪ Great communicators sound conversational. They speak plainly, and use simple words, contractions and uncomplicated sentence structure. This “language of the living room” resonates with people who are fed up with “corporate speak” and words and phrases that sound like they came from speechwriters.
▪ End by repeating your core message, but add an emotional element to help sell your idea.
Use PowerPoint sparingly:
Ryan supplemented his briefing with photos of Red October, showing unique features such as its twin propellers, unusual hull shape and puzzling bow and stern doors. He also had slides showing the location of Soviet ships in the North Atlantic, and locations of U.S. bases.
▪ The human brain can process only one incoming message at a time. An audience will either listen to you or look at your visuals.
▪ Charts, graphs, diagrams and photos make for appropriate visuals; slides containing lots of visuals do not.
▪ Don’t show a visual longer or shorter than it’s needed. One way to control the flow of information is to blank the screen (in PowerPoint, hit the “B” key).
▪ Most presenters who use PowerPoint, use the screen as their prompt. They end up “talking to the screen.” Instead, position your laptop or notes in front of you, so you can maximize eye contact with the audience.
Prepare for Q&A:
Most people dread the Q&A portion of their briefing. Not Jack Ryan. He was well prepared when the inevitable grilling began. When the President questioned whether 110 Soviet sailors were likely to defect, Ryan cited several past examples of attempted Soviet defections. He answered confidently and immediately – creating the impression of a highly credible source.
▪Develop a list of questions you’ll likely get, and questions you hope no one asks. While practicing, vocalize your answers rather than merely thinking about how you’ll respond.
▪ Through a technique called bridging, you can use any question as a springboard to one of your key points. For example, rather than stopping after answering a question, add another point of your choosing.
After Ryan finished, the President told him something every presenter would love to hear: “Damned nice briefing!”
The ability to conduct an effective business briefing is an essential skill. Since most of us acquire our platform skills through observational learning, it’s critical that we observe and learn from the right people – those talented few who can get up before an audience and dazzle them. The fictional Jack Ryan is not a bad role model.