Communication tip: handle both the big picture and detail

Something that I cover in ‘How to influence and persuade’ is taking the time and effort to understand how people take in information and then decide. Most of us have a preference for either the big picture or the detail. So, there are some of us who just ‘want the headline’ or the top 3 most important points. We enjoy thinking big scale, but we lose interest when we have to dot the Is and cross the Ts.

Then again, some of us excel at detail and will spot the gem that others have missed. We enjoy digging into data and have a knack of finding the overlooked error. Some lucky people are blessed with the capability to do both equally well – but usually those who can do both have learned how to.

What does this mean when we’re communicating with colleagues, clients and stakeholders? It means we first need to be aware of our preferences, rather than simply fall into the trap of playing to our default – and risk failing to connect with half the people we’re dealing with. Second, we need to expand our repertoire so we can handle both – the big picture and the detail – to be more effective.

Sounds simple, but how does it actually work in practice, and how can we please all the people all the time? Taking three workplace situations, here are practical examples of how to appeal to both preferences in the room.

In a presentation Big picture:

  • Keep slides clear and simple.
  • Start each point with a ‘headline’ and then expand on it.
  • Use metaphors to explain concepts.

  • Have a crib sheet for presenters so they can answer questions on detail and data.
  • Prepare a detailed handout with all the key facts and figures (this is quite different to the usual ‘hard copy of the deck’, that just doesn’t cut it for people who need detail to evaluate and decide). Ask your audience upfront if they’d like the facts and figures to better follow the presentation.
  • Present a plan for next steps.
In project meetings Big picture:

  • Start by reminding everyone why we’re here and what output is needed from this meeting.
  • Use visuals to show effects of any changes on timing.
  • Sum up agreements and actions as you go – they may lose track otherwise.

  • Prepare and bring all the relevant facts and figures.
  • Don’t go off on tangents.
  • Clarify who’s doing what for all to see, e.g. – on a flip chart or magic whiteboard.
In a sales conversation Big picture:

  • Discuss the long-term view.
  • Discuss what the offer (product, service) will do for them.
  • Point out what’s new or unique.

  • Support any claims with hard evidence.
  • Avoid waffle.
  • Connect the past, present and future.

You may also find this blog post useful: ‘How to influence if you’re not an expert (yet)’

If you want to find out more about workshops on influencing and other communication skills, please get in touch.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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