I just heard from a middle manager who vented about her senior leaders’ lack of response after she made them aware of certain problems. She wondered if there were better ways to explain challenging circumstances or to present unwelcome information.

First we discussed some of the possible reasons that her managers might actually disagree with her, their various alternative perspectives, and whether she isn’t privy to other information that they’re using to decide what is — or isn’t — important. Then I suggested five tactics to make future presentations more effective:

5 Ways to Persuade Upper Management

  1. Stick to the problem you’re trying to solve and the situation under discussion instead of wandering off into other related problems. Your audience may not have the patience for more than one topic at a time, and you don’t want to come off as a doomsayer. Plus, it can be too easy for senior execs to get interested in other problems that they might prefer to focus on, rather than the one you need addressed.
  2. Be prepared to propose alternatives. Do your homework so you’re ready for questions as well as objections. The old line was: “Don’t bring me problems; bring me solutions!” But it may not be appropriate to recommend specific solutions, especially if the limitations of your scope of experience would make you seem presumptuous. Instead, acknowledge the opposing viewpoint before presenting evidence of the impacts of the situation on the organization, and offer directional recommendations: “I can see why that might be a problem. Could it work better if we looked at X, or considered a new analysis of Y before making the decision?” Set up a path with room for senior leaders to reengage and participate.
  3. Talk to them the way they’ll hear you best. Some execs won’t move a muscle until they have concrete data about hard costs. Others need the motivation of a human interest story to understand fully how the situation might play out. Learn the preferences of your audience members, and if you don’t know them well enough, get advice from someone who does.
  4. Start with the big picture before moving to the details; similarly, explain the general case before you move to the exceptions. Keep yourself and your audience on track by establishing hierarchies of impact and causation. Be sure to get the priority issue and the main explanation on the table early; if you hit someone with too many details up front, it’s easy for them to lose sight of the main issue. You can get wound up, too, and confuse your talking points.
  5. Know when you’ve said enough for today. If you see that your boss or another exec is starting to look fretful or distracted, offer to take a break or to follow up at a better time. If you still have some leeway, probe to see if there are any conditions that would make them more amenable to your point of view, and offer to bring new examples or more backup data if that’s realistic to do.

Rock the Boat Gently, So You Don’t Swamp It

The challenge of convincing senior leadership to act on a problem comes up so frequently that I wrote about it from a different angle only two months ago in How to Bring Your Boss Bad News.” I shared that post with the frustrated manager to help her set a more collaborative tone overall.

I also offered her one more suggestion that almost always pays off: When you have a personal stake in the matter at hand, start by describing the impact on the business. That way you won’t sound like a self-involved whiner who’s easy to put off. But do be sure to disclose your interest so that your audience will continue to regard you as a trusted source.