The Art of the Briefing

By definition, you get one shot at a briefing. Preparation can ensure you nail it.

By Peter M. Leschak

You could smell rotting meat a quarter-mile away. When Hurricane Ivan’s tidal surge scoured the barrier island of Santa Rosa in September 2004, the damage was catastrophic. A small restaurant that catered to tourists at the Fort Pickens National Monument was flooded and left without power. Reefers and freezers crammed with food quickly morphed into horror chests of putrefaction under the Gulf Coast sun.

When the Ops Chief of the National Park Service IMT had “given” me the island as my Division, he said, “The island is yours. You own it. Make it work.”

Where to begin? Tarp the roofs of the salvageable buildings, restore electricity, repair the water and sewer systems, secure hazmat, clear debris from the roads, and not least, serve the 60 people assigned to the Division—engineers, plumbers, electricians, archivists from the Smithsonian (for the museum) and two hotshot crews. Access was by boat—a road from the mainland had been returned to the sea.

Rotting food didn’t top the list, but we finally got there. A public health engineer said we could dump the food into a big hole, add lime, bury it. Simple enough—in principle. He provided some full-body proximity suits for those who would have the pleasure of muscling the corruption out of the building.

The two shot crews had been tarping roofs and clearing debris. I summoned one of them to join myself and the engineer at the restaurant. I took the Superintendent and his assistant aside for a briefing and to share leader’s intent. Just as important as presenting information, a briefing is about delivering a performance—especially when a task is difficult and hazardous.

As it happens, I spent five years working at a municipal sewage plant. I once spent an afternoon rooting used condoms out of clogged pump impellers. And that wasn’t my nastiest shift. It’s not easy to gross me out. As I outlined the restaurant mission, I emphasized the suits would shield them completely and that it shouldn’t take long. The miasmic odor was certainly awful, but I tried to be a bit light-hearted (“think of it as a novel challenge”) without minimizing the job. It had to be done.

As the Superintendent briefed his crew I saw shaking heads, wrinkled noses, and general expressions of disbelief and disgust. He returned and respectfully declined the assignment.

“OK,” I said, “I understand.” And I did. Now the performance. I turned to the public health engineer and grinned. “Well, Brian, I guess it’s you and me buddy,” and we started to don a couple of the suits. It was clear that Brian and I fully intended to do the job, and our sincerity had the intended effect.

Those hotshot crewmembers quietly approached and took the suits. “We got this,” said the Superintendent.

Why do we deliver briefings? The obvious answer is to share information about situations and plans, but another important purpose is to express attitude and emotion, the crucial non-verbal content of the message. Words are not the only facet of a briefing, and sometimes perhaps not even the most significant component. A briefing is a presentation and a performance. Done properly, it not only conveys facts, figures, and sense, but establishes authority, engenders trust, and builds confidence.

A typical Division briefing on a fire usually takes five or ten minutes. On that island of Santa Rosa back in 2004—given the complexity of tasks and the acute hazards—my Division briefing was typically 20 to 30 minutes and was as much encouragement as info. In that non-typical, demanding environment it was crucial to offer a spirit as well as provide information.

Sometimes a briefing must be prepared quickly. The steps—even if abbreviated—are:

1. Start at the end. Determine your conclusion so you know where you’re going. Consider: If I had only 20 seconds, what would I say?

2. Craft the exact wording of your introduction, based on the conclusion—echo and reinforce. Write it down if you have time.

3. Determine the appropriate emotional overlay—such as urgency or calmness, formality or informality, commanding or comradely, jovial or somber, etc.—understanding you may switch the overlay from one pitch to another in the same briefing. Monitor the reaction of the audience and adjust accordingly.

4. Establish a framework for the message(s). The briefing checklist on the cover of the IRPG serves well. Even for hurricane recovery that checklist was invaluable. Every morning we addressed it line by line, confident that if every bullet point was checked we’d have the shift essentially covered.

5. Practice delivering your introduction, and understand the presentation begins with the first words out of your mouth. That is, you set the climate and generate expectations with how you say “good morning” or “okay, here’s the deal.” Get their attention: “We have a crucial assignment” or “We’ve been delegated a real challenge.”

6. Practice delivering your conclusion. Your last sentence may be what’s remembered most clearly.

7. Plan your non-verbal cues. Do you move into the circle of the group, or do you stand on the tailgate of a truck? In a more formal setting, do you move among the chairs or anchor at a lectern? Do you begin on the tailgate or at the lectern to establish authority and attention, then move into the crowd to also project approachability?

By definition, you get one shot at a briefing. Preparation can ensure you nail it.


About the Author

Peter Leschak recently retired as a career wildland firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. For the past 25 years he’s been a fire instructor in both the wildland and structure realms for various state and federal agencies. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books, including Ghosts of the Fireground, and has produced more than 300 magazine and newspaper articles. Peter’s last blog post for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center “COMMAND PRESENCE: Looking the Part and Playing the Part” was featured last June:

5 thoughts on “The Art of the Briefing

  1. “As the Superintendent briefed his crew I saw shaking heads, wrinkled noses, and general expressions of disbelief and disgust. He returned and respectfully declined the assignment.”

    I am curious of why or on what basis they “declined the assignment.” What was their reasoning? Every day firefighters are given unpleasant tasks and assignments, but we do them because that is what firefighters do. If is wasn’t a safety issue, what was it?

  2. I don’t remember if there was a stated reason for the initial reluctance. Perhaps it was simply the normal human ‘disgust reaction.’ Given the PPE provided, I didn’t believe it was a safety issue, but then, as i mentioned, I’d worked in a sewage plant for several years. It was certainly outside the scope of routine fire work, though we do talk about “all risk.” In the end they got it done, and one lesson from the story is that there’s more than one avenue of communication and persuasion. (An aside: I bet those guys still talk about that mission — with both laughter and pride.)

  3. I didn’t notice the author until the end. Great to hear from you Pete. I used some of those bullet points when I wrapped up numerous Operational briefings this year. More by default than plan, but hopefully still to good effect most days.

  4. I don’t know who selected the picture that went along with this, but it more thought involved might make it better. We shouldn’t be hamstrung with being politically correct. Given that, we do have female firefighters and folks from a variety of countries. Otherwise, well done. I deployed to Katrina in 2005. Challenging work!

    • Stephen,
      Thank you for the comment.
      We want to make it clear that the author of this post DID NOT select that photo. I, Travis Dotson – Analyst at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center – selected that photo.

      My process for selecting the photo was to quickly do an image search for “wildland fire briefing” and choose an NWCG photo of a typical briefing. I did not put more thought into it than that – which, as you point out, is something I need to reconsider. While this photo does illustrate what many wildland fire briefings look like, we absolutely should pay close attention to the examples we hold up of what ‘normal’ looks like. There are better photos to choose from depicting the diversity that IS present in our workforce. I am grateful for your comment and will use it as a reminder to be more intentional on this front moving forward.
      Thank you,
      Travis Dotson

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