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The U-T-C Trinity of Briefing: Understand, Translate, Convince (LPL1-A01)


This article explores how the U-T-C Trinity of Briefing (understand, translate, convince) can serve as a framework for effectively preparing and delivering briefings to decision-makers.

Published: February 9, 2024
Type: Article
Contributor: Taki Sarantakis, President, Canada School of Public Service

The U-T-C Trinity of Briefing: Understand, Translate, Convince

The ability to brief is a critical skill in the contemporary era. As information proliferates and attention spans diminish, the capacity to convey meaning and guidance and a sound path-forward to decision-makers is an increasingly valued skill in both the private and public sectors. So valued, in fact, that the capacity (or lack thereof) to brief is a key determinate sifter into or away from the executive ranks: the skilled briefer has passed yet another hurdle that helps to open the gate to the executive ranks. The unskilled briefer, by stark contrast, has found this gate to be an impenetrable barrier. Neither energy, nor intelligence, nor passion can overcome this failing at this level, as those qualities did at levels before. "Bob is so smart — but I would never put him in front of the Board of Directors. No one knows the subject better than Bob. But he would confuse rather than inform the Board". Or "Mark is incredibly passionate about our mission — but I would never put him in front of the Minister. Mark would simply baffle her". Indeed, a brief is often seen as a quick proxy for key executive qualities — a good brief allows energy, intelligence, and passion to shine. Conversely, a poor briefing masks energy and intelligence and passion.

Why is briefing such a critical skill? The brief is often the final go/no-go point for a decision that will lead to a project or an expenditure or an acquisition or a policy or a regulation or a product. Entrusting the go/no-go point to someone who is not skilled at briefing is effectively risking wasting the totality of resources that led to the decision point of the brief. Entrusting the brief to the unskilled or to the unpracticed can — and in some cases should — be done when the stakes are low. But as the stakes rise, so too does the importance of the skill of the briefer.

People who do not brief well often hear feedback to the effect of a general exhortation to "be a better communicator". This is true, but fundamentally unhelpful. A general "you need to improve your communication skills to get to the next professional level" may be true, and better communication skills are useful for everyone in any facet of professional life. But improving your communication skills per se does not necessarily make you a better briefer. Instead, being a better briefer requires — I will argue — three distinct and sequential elements. In total, they constitute a more useful alternative to the "be a better communicator" exhortation. They do so because they addresses the specific communication needs of the brief — minimizing noise in the provision of a sound path-forward within the increasingly short time you have in front of a decision-maker.

I. Understand

"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough."

Albert Einstein

It seems trite to assert that those who are doing a briefing need to understand what they are briefing about. But sadly it is not. Indeed, we have all been at meetings where it was clear — sometimes painfully so — that the briefer was presenting the work of another without having first fundamentally understood that work.

Presenting the work of others is something that all executives must do. In fact, in some ways, the most important function of executives is guiding the work of others, and that includes presenting the work of others to various audiences. The Vice-President of Finance explains the detailed projections of a small army of accountants below her. The President of an insurance company explains the risk of a large proposed underwriting policy to her Board of Directors that a small army of actuaries below her have calculated. A Deputy Minister explains to her Minister a proposed regulation developed by her Chief Scientist.

Each need to understand what they are presenting. Many at this stage, however, confuse understand with master. It is most assuredly not the case that those briefing the Board of Directors on a financial matter need to be economists or accountants. It is also not the case that Deputy Ministers briefing Cabinet on an energy plant conversion need to be engineers or physicists. That is, they do not have to be subject matter experts. But they do need to understand what is being proposed by the subject matter expert. Is "the what" reasonable? Is it rationale? Is it coherent in the context of other things we are doing in our organization? Has the concept been tested? How has it been tested? Has it ever been done by our organization before? Has anyone in the world ever done this before? How does it compare with what other countries are doing? How does it differ from what we have done in the past? How confident are we in our implementation capacity? What are the consequences of failure? What are the alternatives? Why are all of those alternatives being discarded in favour of this particular course of action? Why should our corporate or governmental resources go here instead of somewhere else?

All of these questions are magical because they are simultaneously generators and consequences of understanding. Every President or Minister or Board of Directors must ask these questions. And everyone that briefs a President or a Minister or a Board of Directors must know and understand these answers. That is, they need to understand at the level of the decision-maker or above on any given subject area. They must digest the work of the accountant or the actuary or the scientist to the level of understanding of required by those above them in the organizational chain.

If she understands, the briefer has met the first prerequisite of the Understand-Translate-Convince Trinity (U-T-C). But only after she understands. Until understanding, there is no good path forward. Presenting the work of others without understanding that work is indeed possible, and as noted above, we have all seen it done. But briefing without understanding is highly undesirable. Even dangerous, depending on the consequence of the decision. If you brief a decision-maker and get a "successful" outcome without understanding the issue you have briefed on, you may feel like you must be a really good briefer to have achieved that outcome. But, in fact, you are a negligent briefer in this scenario. You have done a disservice to yourself, your company, your ministry, your country, and your decision-maker. You have effectively engaged in deception. You have feigned understanding. And that, depending on your venue, will cost money. Or time. Or lives.

Until you understand, you should not brief.

II. Translate

"Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world."

Italo Calvino

Much has been written about translation. At one end of the spectrum, translation opens up worlds. At the other, translations are seen to be nothing more than stylized deception.

But for the executive, translation must be understood as a core competency. And executives must constantly strive for translation that opens worlds rather than translation which deceives. Understanding something in the language of the accountant, the scientist, the marketer, and the regulator is, as argued above, the first step in the briefing process. The second sequential step of the U-T-C Trinity is to translate the language of the accountant, the scientist, the marketer and the regulator out of their respective disciplinary confines and into the language and context of the decision-maker.

As such, translation in this conceptualization has several key aspects.

The first is that understanding is not mastery of the subject matter of the brief. If mastery of the subject matter is required, then no one but the subject matter expert should be doing the brief. But it is rare that a decision-maker will ever need a briefing at the level of mastery. Occasionally the consequences of the brief is of such importance that the decision-maker will at least insist that the subject matter expert is present for the brief to ensure that errors are not conveyed in either the understanding or translating phases. Indeed, with decisions of such importance, the briefer herself should insist on the presence of the subject matter expert. But more often than not, if a decision-maker insists that the subject matter expert brief directly, the decision-maker is likely implicitly questioning the understanding of the briefer. This is especially true in lower consequence decisions. To insist that a subject matter expert be present in a low consequence decision is generally a strong indication that the decision-maker does not have confidence in the subject matter understanding of the briefer.

The second aspect of translation that is important here is that translation also has a pedagogical aspect — effectively, translation as education. One of the goals of the briefer is to inform and contextualize the work and analysis that has been done in the organization by the accountant, the scientist, the marketer and/or the regulator to the decision-maker.

The final significant informational function of translation is to move beyond the facts of the situation and venture into the potential benefits and pitfalls of the proposed path forward. That is, to inform and contextualize on the what (the facts), the so what (the context/environment) and the now what (selecting the path forward).

The what?, so what?, and now what? should all be translated. The skilled briefer understands all three, and translates all three. Doing so gives the decision-maker a better mosaic of the key complexities that exist in the environment in which the decision is being made.

The final role of translation is the modulation of the translation to the level of the decision-maker – the know-your-audience-rule. Every decision-maker has different needs. Some value concision and brevity. Others require methodical and elaborate sequential unfolding of information. Some decision-makers are sophisticated consumers of particular items. Others are neophytes who have never seen a decision of this type before, and will never see it again afterwards. A briefing that is perfect for a Deputy Minister who has been in the same organization for years is likely to be entirely inappropriate for a Deputy Minister who has just joined the organization.

Institutionally, different types of decision-makers also need differential modulation in translation. An excellent brief for the Board of Directors may be a terrible brief for a CEO. A briefing for the Deputy Minister who needs to understand details in execution may be entirely inappropriate for a Minister who needs only to understand the consequences of her decision. Just as materials on the same subject are different if geared towards doctoral candidates or high school students, so too do briefers need to modulate their translations to the particular institutional roles played by their audience.

Translation is an act of service that should be done for the benefit of the audience, not for the benefit of the translator. A briefing that is geared to the needs of the briefer instead of to the needs of the decision-maker is a selfish act. One that will result in frustration for both briefer and decision-maker.

Until you can modulate the translation to the needs of the decision-maker, you should not brief.

III. Convince

"You warned me, but you didn’t convince me."

Henry Kissinger

You have concluded your brief. It is clear that you understand the subject matter of your briefing. No one could doubt that. It is equally clear that your translation was magical — your decision-maker asked questions that were entirely consistent with the fact that you modulated the translation of your subject matter perfectly in accordance with the needs of your audience.

Knowledge in — check. Knowledge out — check again. Congratulations — you are done. Wrong.

Decision-makers are bombarded with information and requests to make decisions on a variety of subjects daily. Constantly. If you are a Vice-President briefing your CEO, you know that you are not the only Vice President in your organization seeking decisions. You explicitly know that you are but one of several competing for time and resources. And that is only of your type — the Vice President. CEOs are also inundated for decisions by others — shareholders, stakeholders, customers, suppliers. And it may take many months of activities to culminate in a decision-sought briefing, the decision-maker may only have relative minutes to interact with that briefing. And the CEO decision-maker is blessed with relative leisure next to the Ministerial decision-maker, who is inundated with decisions not only of greater volume, but also of greater consequence.

So why is understanding and translation not enough? Surely laying out the facts before a decision-maker in a coherent and appropriate matter is enough? Surely having done that means I have done my job? Surely more than that — surely I have not only done my job but I have done it well?

Decision-makers make decisions. Constantly. Big, small, consequential, trivial. Profit. Loss. Go. Stop. Life. Death.

Each of these requires a different touch. Each of these need a different combination of skills, facts, anecdotes, detachment, passion, and persuasion. Putting the facts down and walking indifferently away is an option when the consequences are low. Putting the facts down and walking away  — indifferent or otherwise — when the consequences are high is, yet again, a disservice to your decision-maker.

When a briefer does not get the particular decision sought, and that particular decision subsequently proves itself to have been the correct path forward, there can be a smug hubris that accrues to the scorned briefer. "I told them not to do it. I argued that it wouldn't work. I clearly showed them the facts. I clearly made them understand the situation. But they didn't listen. They didn't believe me. They thought they knew better. They thought they knew better than me. Now they are seeing the consequences of their mistakes. Now they are paying the consequences for those mistakes".

The Kissinger quotation at the head of this section is as profound as is it is instructive. Decision-makers get noise all day. Every day. Are you yet more noise? Or are you the signal?

Warning that something bad may happen is not very helpful or powerful when you are telling decision-makers every day, on a multiplicity of issues, that something bad may happen. That is just noise — variations on your daily theme. Similarly, briefing your CEO that a proposed project is risky is pretty meaningless. All proposed actions — even proposed inactions — entail some aspect of risk.

There is no valour in after-the-fact smugness and satisfaction of the good path proposed but not taken. Being right personally is meaningless if it does not translate into your organization being right professionally. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, predicting rain (prognostication) is not a big deal. Building an arc (acting consequentially on prognostication) — that, that is a big deal.

Much ink has been spilled by the intelligence officer showing how they warned that something bad might happen, by the engineer telling his decision-maker that the space shuttle launch should be delayed, or by the financial analyst showing us that indeed, Apple stock should have been purchased when it was recommended at $2/share.

Yes you told me all those things. But as Kissinger notes — you did not convince me. Not that I did not understand. I understood you perfectly. Yet, nevertheless, you did not convince me.

The decision-maker is told many things. Every day. Part of your job as a good briefer is to be clarion signal in the storm of noise. You are presenting the work of your organization that is the one — and the only one — whose full-time job it is to track the terrorist or inspect the o-ring or follow Apple stock. The decision-maker above you does not have the benefit of all the information you have. If they had all that information, they would actually be in your job. On high-consequence decisions, you have to move far beyond understanding. Far beyond translating.

But this raises a conundrum — at the end of the day, you are the briefer, not the decision-maker. At some point, you must yield to the decision-maker in the event of advice not taken. In the political realm, this is especially important, even sacred. The administrative side advises. The political side decides.

But when do you yield when your advice is not being taken? When do you stop when you have failed to convince?

Much philosophical ink has been spilled on this subject, in different guises, over hundreds of years of thought. It is often couched in the sharply contrasting roles played by the philosopher and the king, the practitioner and the scholar, of those who occupy the realm of thought against those who live in the world of action. Most dramatically of all, perhaps, as the contest between truth and power.

These sharply defined distinctions are inordinately useful in teaching and understanding, but they are not useful to the dilemma of the briefer in the decision not taken. The briefer is not the binary opposite of the decision-maker. The briefer is an input into a process where the decision-maker is supreme. The briefer must yield.

But again, when — when in this process should you yield? On low-consequence decisions, early. In high consequence decisions, very late. How late? I would suggest here that your greatest asset is a pool of accumulated trust capital. This lets you continue to try again on a further level or avenue of convincing. But where that accumulated trust is not available, then the yield-trigger becomes highly personal. For me, the trigger to yielding is when I myself am convinced that the consequences of not taking the proposed path-forward in the briefing are clear. I could have failed in convincing. That is highly unfortunate, but not negligent. But if I have failed in communicating consequences, then I must keep going. Yielding before securing at least the understanding of negative consequence is, I would argue, irresponsible. Even if continued attempts at convincing come at personal and professional cost (being thought of as obstinate, for example, is not an asset). For others, the line is different. But it is ultimately a very personal decision as to when to yield. In some cases, indeed, yielding can even mean tendering a resignation.

Nevertheless, until you can convince, you should not brief. And if you are not successful at convincing on a regular basis, that is a clear indication that your briefing skills have issues that need to be addressed.

Concluding thoughts: The U-T-C Trinity

Briefing decision-makers is a privilege conferred upon those who have demonstrated some not inconsiderable talent and achievement in their professional domain. If you are an accomplished briefer, you are likely so in strong part because you always remember that it is indeed a privilege to be briefing — to be tasked with understanding, translating, and convincing for those that rely on you to do so. The best and most consequential professionals are often those that are deeply appreciative of being an input in the decision-making process, especially those that operate in the public sphere, where decisions impact us all.

The U-T-C Trinity is useful because it unfolds sequentially and logically — it starts with you, then moves successively outward to serve the needs of your decision-maker. Because without understanding, you are dangerous. Without translation skills, you are merely mouthing sounds in an unknown language. And without the capacity to convince, you are information without consequence. Remember that you need all of these to be a competent briefer. And remember that you need them in this order. Do not move to translation before you understand. Do not try to convince until you have mastered your translation.

Briefing decision-makers is a skill. And like most skills, you can get better at it if you understand its constituent components, and approach each briefing methodically, both in preparation and in presentation. At the end of the day, briefing a decision-maker can be understood as a particular type of communication skill. One that allows your energy, intelligence, and passion to shine. And if you can do that, you have taken a tremendous step towards having a rewarding and enriching and consequential career.

(An earlier version of this article was published on

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