Last week I was in Toronto, speaking at the SecTor conference. My remote hypnotic trance must have worked, because they gave me a lunch keynote and let me loose on a crowd of a couple hundred Canucks stuffing their faces. Of course, not having anything interesting to say myself, I hijacked one of Rich’s presentations called “Involuntary Case Studies in Data Breaches.” It’s basically a great history of data breaches, including some data about what went wrong and what folks are doing now. The idea is to learn from our mistakes and take some lessons from other folks’ pain. You know, the definition of a genius: someone who learns from other people’s mishaps.

Ah, the best laid plans. The presentation took on a life of its own and I think it’s worthwhile to document some of what I said before my senile old brain forgets. Truth be told, I’m never quite sure where a presentation is going to go once I get rolling. And odds are I couldn’t deliver the same pitch twice, even if I tried. Especially when I started off by mentioning masturbating gorillas. Yes, really. I said that out loud to an audience of a couple hundred folks. And to the credit of my Canadian friends, they let me keep talking.

We can talk about data breaches all day long. We can decompose what happened technically, understand the attack vectors, and adapt our defenses to make sure we don’t get nailed by a copycat script kiddie (yeah, that’s probably too many metaphors for one sentence). But that would be missing the point. You see, the biggest issue most security folks have is getting support and funding for the initiatives that will make a difference to an organization’s security posture. Security is an overhead function, and that means it will be minimized by definition – always.

So given what we know is a huge problem – getting funding for our projects – how can we leverage a deck like Rich’s, with chapter and verse on many of the major data breaches of the past 30 years, to our advantage? We can use that data to tell a story about what is at risk.

That was my epiphany on stage in Toronto. I’ve been talking about communications (and how much the average security practitioner sucks at it) for years. In fact, the Pragmatic CSO is more about communications than anything else. But that was still pretty orthogonal to our day to day existence. Great, we get an audience with the CIO or some other C-level suit: what then? We need to take a page from Sales 101 and tell a story. Get the listener involved in what we are telling them. Give them a vested interest in the outcome, and then swoop in for the close.

I know, I know: you all hate sales. The thought of buying a car and dealing with a sales person makes you sick. You can’t stand all the smooth talking folks who come visit every six months with a new business card and a fancier widget to sell you. But don’t get lost in that. We all need to sell our priorities and our agendas up the line – unless you enjoy having your budget cut every year.

Getting Ready

So what do we do? Basically you need to do some homework before you build your story, in a few short steps:

  • Know what’s important: What are the most critical information resources you need to protect? Yes, I know I have mentioned this a number of times over the past few weeks. Clearly it’s a hot button of mine.
  • Pull the compliance card: Can you use compliance as an easier argument to get funding? If so, do that. But don’t count on it. It’s usually the close to your story anyway.
  • Quantify downside: Senior executives like data and they understand economic loss. So you need to build a plausible model of what you will lose if something bad happens. Yes, some of it is speculation, and you aren’t going to build your entire story on it, but it’s data to swing things in your favor.
  • Know the answer: It’s not enough to point out the problem – you need to offer an answer. What are you selling? Whether it’s a widget or a different process, understand what it will take to solve the problem.
  • Know what it will cost: Even if they agree in concept to your solution, they’ll need to understand the economic impact of what you are suggesting. Yes, this is all the homework you have to do before you are ready to put on your Aesop costume and start writing.

Building the Story

You know the feeling you get when you see a great movie? You are engaged. You are pulling for the characters. You envision yourself in that situation. The time just flies and then it’s over. What about a crappy movie? You keep checking your watch to figure out when you can leave. You think about your to-do list. Maybe you map out a few blog posts (or is that only me?). Basically, you would rather be anywhere else. If you are a senior exec, which bucket do you think most meetings with security folks fall into?

So unleash your inner Woody Allen and write some compelling dialog:

  • Describe what’s at risk: You know what’s important from your homework. You know the downside. Now you need to paint a picture of what can happen. Not in a Chicken Little sense, but from a cold, calculated, and realistic point of view. There is little interpretation. This is what’s important, and these are the risks. You aren’t judging or pulling a fire alarm. You are like Joe Friday, telling them just the facts.
  • Substantiate the risk: Most organizations don’t want to be the first to do anything because it’s too risky. You can play on that tendency by using anecdotes of other issues that other organizations (hopefully not yours) have suffered. The anecdote makes the situation real. All this data breach stuff is very abstract, unless you can point to Company A, who lost $Y and had to deal with Z, because they didn’t do whatever it is you are recommending.
  • Use data (where appropriate): This is where all Rich’s data comes in. The story makes it real. The data makes it believable. Remember: when you are telling a story and you have a listener engaged, they want to believe. So you need to give them proof that you are speaking the truth. That is data. And not all the data – just the data that matters. Selective use of data that supports your contention is okay. Crap, politicians have been selling us stories for years based on slanted views of data, no?
  • Leverage compliance (where appropriate): Yes, there is a place for the compliance mallet here as well. It’s not to lead the story, because we are trying to get them to do the right thing, as opposed to check the box. But the fact that an important box gets checked makes the story all the more compelling.
  • Ask for the order: Make sure you end your story with a simple question. “What else do you need to know to fund this project?” Put the ball in their court and get specifics. You don’t want things to drag out – you want to get to a ‘yes’ (or ‘no’) as quickly as possible. Make sure there is a path to getting there before you leave.

Oh, and practice telling your story. A lot. This may not be the bedtime story your kids are expecting, but tell them anyway. There will be objections and you’ll need to anticipate them and know how to diffuse the issues.

And one more thing: Believe. You need to believe it or your story will come off hollow and lame. If you don’t believe you are pushing your organization in the right direction, then don’t bother. If you have any uncertainty, go back to the drawing board. Senior executives can smell indecision and they’ll disregard whatever you are saying out of hand. No matter how good your story is, if you don’t believe it, it won’t sell. You can take that to the bank.