Make persuasive presentations to senior executives

This article is about face-to-face presentations in office and hybrid modes of work. Time is tight for senior executives – even tighter than in the past, due to COVID-19 ramifications. They are extremely busy and have to make many decisions under great time pressure. They are not going to let you make nicely detailed presentations leading to a neat conclusion of your case. Therefore, your presentations needs to be tightly structured. You need to stick to the key points and not get caught up in detail. You need to solve a significant business problem or create a clear opportunity with a strong call to action if it is going to stand out. Read in this article how you can make persuasive presentations to senior executives.

Explain the big picture

The executives will want to know the big picture. Executive Coach Sabina Nawaz says in a Harvard Business Review article of 3 April 2020, you should tell them the bottom line first. This means starting with the end point – the results and benefits. Then give a very broad outline of the strategy, and only provide more details if asked.

The key is to get quickly to the key points and recommendations, ask them for questions (which is when they may want to dig down into some of your detail), and then finish quickly. A brief HBR “Tip of the Day” adaptation of Nawaz’s article, “How to blow a presentation to the C-Suite,” emailed to subscribers on 19 December 2018, recommends spending the first 25% of your time explaining/reminding them of the problem. Talk about the pain points and build a sense of urgency. Spend the next 25% of time outlining your idea. You need to indicate how it will be funded, and how you expect this solution to grow and its impacts on the rest of your organization. But don’t get caught up in details. She says:

In fact, you should reserve the last 50% of your time for questions. While that seems like an outsize chunk, it can be the most valuable part of your talk. Rapid-fire, blunt questions are a sign that executives are interested in and testing the angles of your idea. The more questions you receive, the better the presentation. [As long as they aren’t picking your ideas to pieces!]

Protecting their turf

In my experience, C-Suite executives are very sensitive about their own turf. They are thinking, “What does this mean for me?” If your proposal has any potential to reduce an executive’s power or budget, they are likely to become an immediate problem, throwing up objections intended to protect their turf. Therefore, you need to think beforehand if any of the attendees may perceive your proposal as a threat or a poor reflection on them in some way. Aim to show that your recommendations will be readily funded (with minimal cost to their own budget) and how your proposal will benefit the organization.

Use these tips for winning executive approval

Below, I explain how to make persuasive presentations to senior executives. You can also read some more helpful advice in my article, “Internal presentations are vital to your career.”

Summarize your case at the start

This approach is more direct than the typical presentation process. Get straight to the point. Lead with your expected bottom line results. Then explain ‘big picture’ information about the problem or solution you have identified relevant to these decision makers. They want you to create context, and discuss the problem or potential opportunity. You should build a sense of urgency towards addressing the challenge. The more urgent the problem appears, the more eager your audience will be for the solution. They will be more motivated to prioritize your idea if they can see a direct connection to a problem that won’t go away or that will become more significant without their attention.

Outline the range of options, the financial implications, conclusions and your ensuing recommendation/call to action, and the benefits of such action. Support your main points with broad data and other main information. But don’t get bogged down in details.

Set their expectations

Inform the executives of the structure of your presentation – that you will start by discussing your summary, followed by some supporting points and followed by solid time for questions and discussion with the group. Allow a big chunk of time – up to 50% – for questions and discussion. This may seem a lot of time, but it can be the most valuable part of your talk. A common misconception is that if there are no questions, then things went well. However, brisk questions may well indicate their interest and are thinking through your case. Therefore, it is likely that more questions mean more interest. This means you know how to make a persuasive presentation to senior executives.

Create key visuals

Support your case with a slide deck. Prepare a slide deck in which the key points are made up front in a few slides. The rest of your slides should carry support information. After you present the summary slides, let the executives run the conversation, and go to the support slides only when relevant questions and comments are made.

Read the room

Pay close attention to the people attending. Don’t just focus on what they’re saying – check their body language as well. Do a quick scan of the individuals, noting who is next to whom, their interactions and the general atmosphere between them.

Maintain eye contact in rotation with each person for a few seconds without overdoing it. (Don’t look at each person one-by-one in strict rotation around the meeting table, as this will be seen to be mechanical and contrived. Just make sure you get to look at each of the individuals, especially the leaders. See what their body language is like. Ask some open-ended questions to help you uncover their attitudes – and try to dig a bit deeper to briefly uncover their real views.

Rehearse

Always rehearse your presentation – firstly to yourself, and then to an experienced colleague who is prepared to give candid feedback. Ask them if your key message is clear. Check that your summary slides contain the top-of-mind info that can be quickly absorbed. Ask them if there is anything further the group may want to see included.

Such a presentation can be demanding. The way you handle the opportunity is important to your future in the organization. Presenting directly to the executive team means you are viewed with respect, and the presentation can open doors for you. If you nail this, people with a lot of influence will become strong advocates for your ideas.

Create a strong call to action

Just before you end, give a strong call to action. Pause before you say it, pause after you say it, and emphasize it with your body language. A call to action is essential to tell your audience exactly what they should do as a result of your presentation.

Then describe what is going to happen for the attendees and/or for your organization when your recommendations are implemented. Delivering a call to action creates curiosity for listeners. They want that curiosity satisfied by understanding what will happen when the action takes place. This satisfaction – and a picture of what the future could look like – will motivate the executives to take action themselves, or at least approve your plan of action. You will be regarded with respect in those meetings because you have demonstrated that you know how to make persuasive presentations to senior executives.

I will shortly be writing an article on virtual/remote presentations.

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