Presenting to executives can feel daunting. But with these tips, you’ll be prepared to present confidently and persuasively.
Presenting to executives can be a make-or-break moment in careers, not to mention nerve-wracking. Whether it’s requesting approval, sharing a status update, or presenting a quarterly business report, it’s important that your presentation is concise, meaningful, and insightful. Follow this short checklist each time you create an executive presentation to ensure you make the best impression possible.
Make sure your presentation is really worth sitting through
Executives’ schedules are packed with meetings. Like all of us, their time is precious. For this reason, executives won’t have patience for a drawn-out introduction that doesn’t seem relevant. Respect their time by getting to the point of your presentation quickly — within 30 or 60 seconds.
In addition to getting to the heart of your argument quickly, be sure to keep the presentation short, simple, and candid. Executives need to gather information and make decisions quickly. Overly complicated presentations with indirect language open the door for misunderstandings and confusion. Avoid this by being direct and concise.
Finally, before you schedule a presentation with an executive, ask yourself if scheduling a meeting is really necessary. If it’s not, save their calendar by providing a status update offline instead.
Have a BIG Idea
The BIG Idea is the one critical message you want your audience to remember. It needs to be concise, easy to remember, and specific. But keep in mind that the BIG Idea is not the name and details of your product, solutions, or recommendations. Instead, your BIG Idea must be an easy-to-understand sentence about WHAT your presentation is about, and must include one to three benefits that are relevant to the audience.
In addition, your BIG Idea must link WHY your audience should care about what you’re saying to HOW you plan to implement the next steps. Your BIG Idea is the central idea that ties together your entire presentation. It’s the core of the story you’ll tell your audience. But in order to implement your BIG Idea successfully, you’ll need to organize your entire presentation around business storytelling structure, which we’ll discuss next.
Apply story structure to your presentation
The most effective way to present to executives — or anyone, for that matter — is to use classic storytelling structure. When you lead with stories instead of data, you drive people to action. That’s because facts and data without context can be hard to understand, follow along with, and remember later on. Storytelling provides a road map, making it easier to understand what the data really means and how it should influence decisions.
To create an effective story, structure it around these four elements:
- Setting: Your setting provides the context for your presentation. It’s a place or a circumstance that places your story in a specific point in time.
- Characters: Those who are affected by the current situation are your story’s characters. In business storytelling, characters are usually people like customers, employees, or your team. The executive you’re presenting to can even be a character in your story.
- Conflict: Once you establish the context of your story (the setting) and introduce the characters, describe the conflict, or problem being faced. Conflict provides tension in the story. It gives your audience a reason to care — and take action to resolve it.
- Resolution: After describing the setting and characters and establishing the conflict, your audience will be emotionally involved in the story. At this point, audience members will be motivated to resolve the conflict, and hopefully embrace the resolution that you recommend. In business storytelling, resolution is often a course of action or a new product or service that needs to be provided.
The power of business storytelling lies in the fact that it allows you to clearly describe a problem, lay out the implications of that problem, and provide a solution for it. By establishing the setting and characters, you help your audience envision themselves (or their stakeholders) in the story, ultimately motivating them to care about the problem and encouraging them to support, and act on, the solution you recommend.
Take on an executive mindset
Executives think big picture and long term. And generally, people with a strong executive presence do the same. They prioritize vision over details and like to frame their ideas in the context of growth, profitability, and competitive advantage. When you present to executives, provide the perspective and the kind of information they’re most interested in. For example, talk about your organization’s most important strategic initiatives and goals. But before you do anything else, start by talking about the big picture — presenting your BIG Idea first — before you get into the details.
Executives must also take multiple stakeholders into consideration when they make decisions. Keep this in mind when planning your presentation. Look at issues (and data) from multiple perspectives to account for the various groups that could be affected by the executive’s decisions. Relevant constituencies will depend on your organization and the topic being discussed, but these groups could include boards of directors, analysts, competitors, shareholders, customers, regulators, and more.
Walk in your audience’s shoes
A good rule of thumb for all presenters is to prioritize the needs of the audience. In other words, the presentation is not about you. Instead, ask yourself what the audience is experiencing, and how the information you’re providing contributes to their understanding and success.
We said earlier that you need to keep presentations short and simple. At the same time, don’t dumb things down too much. Refine your message in a way that allows you to communicate all of the necessary nuances of your argument while remaining concise. Executives are experienced audience members, so cut any content that’s common knowledge and anticipate informed questions. This kind of balance allows you to respect your audience’s time, without sacrificing content.
Clarify rewards and risks: Executives are constantly required to evaluate risks and rewards. Be clear about them by finding an insider to coach you on this mindset (e.g., an executive assistant, direct report, or colleague who presents to executives regularly). Keep their business goals, professional aspirations, and fears top of mind, and show them how your project will help them achieve success and mitigate risk.
Use active headlines
When designing a visual presentation, think about the way audience members will interact with each slide. The headline, or title, for each slide will be the largest text on the screen. That means it’s also the most likely to be read, while smaller text on each slide will probably be skimmed or passed over altogether. This means that the headlines are the most important text in your presentation.
To write an effective headline, aim for concise yet descriptive language that highlights your key takeaway or insight on that slide. Active, attention-grabbing headlines emblazoned across every slide will spark curiosity in your audience and encourage them to listen more intently.
Be prepared to pivot
Imagine you’ve scheduled a 30-minute meeting with an executive, complete with a detailed presentation. When you arrive, you find out that the executive’s schedule has changed. Now you only have five minutes to present — yikes! So what do you do? Pivot!
The pivot strategy is a technique that gives you the best chance to address audience needs in real time. Pivoting gives you the flexibility to adapt to your circumstances without sacrificing results.
A good pivot starts with knowing your presentation and its content — including the storytelling structure you’ve used to create it — backward and forward. You’ll also want to make sure you’re armed with all of the supporting data necessary to make your argument, especially if it’s counterintuitive, unexpected, or challenging to current opinions and practices. When you know your stuff, you’ll be prepared to pivot between different parts of the presentation depending on your audience’s needs. For instance, if you’re presenting to an executive who’s impatient or short on time, you can jump to your presentation’s BIG Idea. Then you can ask, “Do you want more context?” If they do, dive deeper into the characters, setting, and conflict of your story. Or, you can ask, “Do you want to see more details about my proposed solution?” If they do, you can jump into your resolution.
Now You’re Ready to Present to Executives
By following these seven steps in each of your executive presentations, you’re guaranteed to put your best foot forward. Executives will walk away informed, grateful, and impressed with the work you put in front of them.