Context Versus Background: Streamlining Your Presentations and Decisions

What’s the first thing that you do when you see a “background” section in a presentation or communication?

If you’re like many people, you probably said, “Ignore it”. If it’s during a presentation, you probably also let out a loud sigh and slouch in your chair a bit!

Yet, I’d bet that you provide “background” in most of your communication and presentations.

Stating a presentation with “Background” is pretty standard in many organizations. In fact, many of my clients have presentation or writing templates that specifically start with a section labelled “Background”.

In most cases, very little of the background actually helps anyone trying to make a decision.

Most of these templates are really looking for context. That’s not the same as background. Unfortunately, many people use these words synonymously. As a result, presentations and communication are filled with details that, while related to the problem at hand, are not relevant to the specific decision being made.

So, what’s the difference?

Background is a summary of what got you to the current point. While some pieces of background might be relevant to a decision, most are not.

Context is a summary of the current situation itself. Context explains the problem that needs to be solved.

Here’s a simple example.

Imagine that you have an interview for your dream job. The interview is scheduled in Los Angeles on Friday at 10:00 am. You live in New York City.

You decide that you are going to drive to California. You  leave on Monday. You expect to arrive in California on Thursday afternoon. However, you run into car trouble in Cleveland and then again in Chicago. It’s now Wednesday. You know that you can no longer make it in time if you continue to drive. And, you aren’t even sure if your car is going to hold up for the rest of the trip.

Everything in the last paragraph is background. It’s the story of how you got stuck in Chicago. Most of it is totally unnecessary for your decision which is how you should get to LA. Yet, how often do we start with the “story” of how we got to a certain point?

Context, on the other, hand is much simpler:

·     Problem: You currently aren’t going to make it to your interview on time.

·     Impact: If you don’t get there on time, you will lose the opportunity for your dream job.

·     Driver: You had planned to drive but that is no longer feasible.

You may add a bit of supporting evidence from the background.

·     It’s too far to drive in two days.

·     The car is unreliable.

That’s it! That’s all you need to know to make a decision.

The how, why, and where regarding the car’s breakdowns just add details that don’t matter to the decision.

By starting with context, you quickly position your decision-maker to arrive at a conclusion. Starting with background wastes a lot of your and your decision-maker’s time.

Context only requires answering three questions*:

·     What is the current problem?

·     What is the impact of this problem?

·     What is the main driver of the problem?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you are ready to present your recommendation.

However, you should never make a recommendation until you’ve answered these questions.

Sometimes in an attempt to be brief, people get rid of the context section all together. That’s not helpful either.

Context plays an important role in engaging and setting your decision-maker up for the decision.

What’s the problem? If a person doesn’t believe there is a problem, he or she will have no interest in your recommendation.

What’s the impact? If a person doesn’t believe the problem matters (e.g., has impact), he or she won’t care about having it solved.

What’s the driver? If you don’t lay out the driver, your decision maker may make a host of assumptions about the problem. This may cause him or her to go down a completely incorrect path.

More importantly, when you add the driver, your decision-maker will start to anticipate your solution.

For example, imagine that your company is suffering an attrition problem.

There are a lot of different ways to solve that problem. Your decision-maker may go down any number of paths.

Now imagine that after introducing the problem, you state that employee surveys and exit interviews point to poor benefits as the cause.

What’s going to happen?

The decision-maker is going to think, “We’d better get our benefits straightened out.”

At that point you make your recommendation about improving benefits. Now you and the decision-maker are on the same page. And, your decision maker is more confident in the decision. After all, he or she isn’t agreeing with you. He or she came up with the idea first. You just agreed!

Context is key to setting up a recommendation and driving decisions. I believe that it’s actually more important than the recommendation itself (of course, the recommendation has to be clear and thought-out).

The more people see, feel, empathize, and relate to your problem, the more likely they are to get on board with your solution.

Just stay focused. Context includes the data and information needed to make a decision. Nothing else. Put all of the “background” into the Appendix in case someone asks.



* This isn’t a new idea. It’s how Aristotle defined building an argument in his work, Rhetoric III.


Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Speaker, and Author with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at

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