Editor’s Note: The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce customer support websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online help knowledge bases. His eighth installment shares insights into how we can gain the support of key stakeholders in middle and upper management.

Fostering Support from Stakeholders

Ever been in a long-anticipated meeting to green-light an initiative only to hear your project’s spokesperson sell a bold concept you support by making promises that make you cringe? That sinking feeling is the gnawing sense of caveats being ignored, erroneous assumptions creeping in and legitimate concerns evaporating. As expectations diverge from reality, the chances of catastrophe increase.

Though professional troubleshooters rarely discuss it, we’ve learned the hard way that identifying problems and devising cost-effective solutions may not be our biggest hurdles. Often, the steepest obstacle we face is aligning expectations throughout the chain of command as we navigate the minefield of managerial personalities that lie between us and presenting the business case to the decision-maker(s).

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In article six of this series, we explored how to convince executive leadership that a new comprehensive content strategy is warranted, while in the seventh article we considered how best to collaborate with our keyboarding colleagues to devise a feasible approach. In this follow-up we will examine how to help key stakeholders in middle and upper management become effective advocates.

Communicating with Stakeholders

Let’s begin by acknowledging that many professional managers are prone to tune out when being briefed on a concept that involves complexities outside their domains. Typically, the more technical the details, the faster the glazed-over look emerges. When that occurs, we have ceased communicating and are at risk of losing a potential advocate. To succeed, we must recognize that abstract discussions can be especially challenging for busy middle managers who are distracted by the stockpile of demands they face between meetings. It’s no different for upper management since listening to others discuss hypothetical aspects of a white-board concept leaves many MBAs yearning for their spreadsheets and metrics. Bottom line…we cannot afford to bore an audience already prone to distraction.

To that end, let’s make sure we:

  1. Research the audience. When a stakeholder’s interests, preferences and pet peeves are not well understood, we need to engage someone with those insights to help us. This person is also a good candidate for our operations committee should we get the green light.
  2. Prime the pump with a pre-brief. We will submit a one-page executive summary of the initiative for context along with a proposed outline of topics to confirm that areas of particular interest are covered and define our objective. Framing this as an approval step will at least ensure that the stakeholder acknowledges that s/he had the opportunity to shape the brief. This tactic is very effective when dealing with individuals who tend to be confrontational.
  3. Establish the audience’s self-interest. The simplest way to capture a stakeholder’s rapt attention is to underscore that these briefs have been sanctioned by the C-level to elicit management’s expertise.
  4. Follow-up. For any question of substance—even those we confidently answer in full during the brief—we will provide a written response. This will create a record, help us maintain consistency and tends to inhibit people from inaccurately embellishing when discussing the project with peers.

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Anticipating and avoiding the pitfalls

With our approach defined and preparations completed, we must also anticipate and avoid the pitfalls of briefing managers, especially those who do not share our technical acumen.

Let’s ensure that as we brief our concept, we do not:

  • Overestimate our audience. We court disaster when we fail to recognize that the listener is not grasping important nuance. Many managers expend tremendous energy to project a facade of technical acumen, but scratch the veneer and you may be in for a shock.

    Tactic: Assume that the decision-maker lacks in-depth knowledge about the topic until proven otherwise. Be alert to signs that s/he is projecting pseudo-expertise, e.g. over-simplification, improper use of terms. Do not feel compelled to fill the silence.

  • Oversell the concept. It’s quite natural to want to convince others that a concept has vast potential that warrants investment. But it’s at this genesis point that expectations begin to gel. Unless the concept’s potential is tempered from the outset with real-world constraints, it will be extremely difficult to rein in unrealistic expectations.

    Tactic: Establish and routinely brief an ongoing list of potential challenges, e.g. assumptions, obstacles, constraints.

  • Oversimplify. Our stakeholder schedules a one-hour meeting to discuss the concept, and we prepare assiduously. Upon arrival, our time is cut to 15 minutes because of pressing priorities. He asks pointed questions about outcomes but waves off in-depth answers and urges us to get to the point.

    Tactic: We must recognize that he is seeking precision where none exists. We are being manipulated and need to be steadfast. Would a physician be bullied by a patient into making unrealistic promises? We have the expertise he needs; ask to reschedule. If unable, turn the tables by modeling good listening skills and probing with follow-up questions. Be diligent and help him frame questions you can answer in writing.

  • Rubber-stamp understanding. There will doubtless be stakeholders who respond to a well-articulated explanation with, “So, what you are saying is yada yada …” Because it seems we are connecting, it is damnably tempting to ratify that person’s analogies and metaphors, but it’s very risky.

    Tactic: She is doing us a favor by trying to rephrase key points in her own words. Recognize it as a key learning opportunity and expend the effort to ensure comprehension, even if it requires several iterations. Listen enthusiastically – but critically – to the summary to confirm that she is truly groking our message.

  • Fail to document. Often, the last thing an excited person or team with a brilliant idea wants to do is pause to document. But failing to do so is a virtual guarantee that the intended meaning will be misconstrued.

    Tactic: The effective idea-person is the one who tempers enthusiasm with critical thinking and rigor that begins with putting everything in writing, especially the caveats for answers provided to management.

Summing it Up!

We should not have to experience a painful project where our expertise was ignored or our timely and astute warnings were forgotten once the blame-game began. The key to managing expectations up the chain of command is to be alert to the risks of not doing so. The next step is to realistically assess the audience. We must candidly appraise the listening skills and knowledge of our listeners when shaping the message. We will not assume that smart, highly paid decision-makers understand important nuance even as they nod their heads. We’ll engage them to make sure they get the gist. And despite our best efforts to set the stage, we won’t assume that everyone in the audience was adequately (or accurately) prepared for the brief.

Last Week: Robert’s seventh of twelve articles, Your Content Strategy: Is It Feasible?, shares insights into how we can gain the support of stakeholders in middle and upper management.

Next Week: Robert’s ninth of twelve articles, Swing and a Miss…Faulty Support Metrics, will share insights on how to ensure that we leverage the unique insights of those who help the users of our knowledge base by empowering them to flag deficiencies.

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