This is the time of year for CIOs to present to business executives their IT results for the year, IT budgets for next year and IT plans in alignment with business strategic plans. This is an opportunity to exercise "executive-friendly" communication skills.

Why is this important for the CIO, and how does he/she effectively communicate complex technical issues and plans to nontechnical business executives? Because communication is critical to selling IT budgets and innovation to business executives. If key elements are not effectively sold to these decision makers, overall IT results will suffer.

Being able to share technology issues and opportunities is no longer a nicety — it is essential to the overall business. Take, for example, the importance of an electronic health record system to the operation of a healthcare organization.

Effective communication with business executives is also a prerequisite to a seat at the executive table. If your communication is filled with technical jargon and wiring diagrams, you may miss your opportunity to influence the direction of the enterprise.

So, how can you make your communication executive-friendly? Here are nine tips.

1. No jargon or wiring diagrams

Avoid technical complexity, or business executives may lose interest quickly. If you must use technical terms, provide short and simple definitions assuming no prior knowledge. Take the time to simplify your message, avoid technical "noise," and your message may be heard.

2. Adapt to the audience

A sales executive may be looking for brevity and a graph to summarize details. The CFO, on the other hand, may want to see more details and numbers, asking many questions. Shape your presentation to the particular audience.

If presenting to both executives or to a group of executives from multiple disciplines, you may need a brief message with details added as an attachment.

3. Move the key message upfront

It is natural for IT-structured thinkers to build the business case from assumptions at the beginning to a logical conclusion at the end. But in reality, the business executive may be called away to respond to a crisis in the middle of your presentation and never hear the conclusion. Or he/she may lose interest by the time the conclusion is reached.

Move the key message early in the pitch. "I am requesting $2 million for a new core system because ..." This not only conveys the key message, but may pique interest in the rest of the presentation.

4. Link to business direction/strategy

Demonstrate that you are aligning IT direction and requests, with the overall direction of the company not advocating technology for technology sake. Show how your technology request supports business strategy.

5. Keep it to one page

I strive for brevity, to hold the attention of the business executive and to accomplish conveying the message before being sidetracked by questions. My goal is a one-page executive briefing document that conveys key information:

  • What is the recommendation?
  • How does it align with the business?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the costs?
  • What are the alternatives considered (and discarded)?
  • What are the next steps going forward?

Address any anticipated concerns or objections upfront. If you have additional supporting documents, numbers or diagrams, attach them to the one page.

6. Use proper formatting

The structure of the text can enhance readability.

  • Use bold type: Make key points or phrases jump off the page with the use of bold print.
  • Bullet points and lists: I tend to list the topics in bold, then list items within those topics, as in the structure of this article. This enables the busy executive to skim the key ideas and dive deeper where interest warrants. Burying the message in long, complex paragraphs does not help convey the message to executives with limited time.
  • Indent: Like a news format, indent the text or bullet points below a topic. This helps the busy reader skim the material efficiently. One of my pet peeves is searching through long, rambling text looking for the key points buried within. Invest time in formatting to help the reader.

7. Pay attention to grammar and spelling

Like having clean grammar and spelling in a resume, it is assumed that an important IT presentation will have this adequately covered. It demonstrates an appropriate level of preparation and respect for the business executive audience.

Years ago, I prepared an excellent IT strategy document, but missed a spelling error on page one. The COO suggested I was "illiterate" and refused to read the document until it was cleaned up. This may have contributed to my sensitivity to this point.

So take a few minutes to proofread. It wouldn't hurt to have someone else proofread as well.

8. Use analogies

Early in my IT management career, I observed the communication patterns of the senior leadership team. I noticed the CFO was not as effective in communicating with his peers, that he continually spoke in financial jargon.

Others on the senior team used analogies to convey ideas, comparing the idea to something familiar. Using common examples, they were able to effectively share complex ideas across various disciplines and gain consensus.

So I started looking for analogies: investing in IT infrastructure is like fire prevention vs. firefighting; a project is like the Russian pencil (see one of my prior articles), an effective solution to the business need at a low cost. And so on.

9. Try storytelling

This is one of the secrets to great presentations given in the book, "Talk Like TED," by Carmine Gallo. A story personalizes the message, sharing a bit of you as well as the message. Storytelling and personalizing the story can enhance your bond with the audience. Here is an example of storytelling from my recent article on managing IT costs:

"My older son was a high school wrestler. In one of his matches, he ended up in a pretzel-like hold that appeared inescapable. After the match, I asked, 'What do you do in a situation like that?' He responded, 'Do what the coach tells us — don't get into it.' When it comes to your IT costs, don't wait until you are in a pretzel hold."


The tips above have been developed via trial and error over my 30-plus-year career, geared to conveying IT messages to the busy nontechnical executive. I have applied these tips to my previous articles and have received this feedback from IT leaders:

  • "direct"
  • "well organized"
  • "to the point"
  • "readable"

This CIO feedback indicates the tips also work for conveying a message to the busy IT executive. What tips would you add to the list?