How to make an authoritative presentation to senior executives
Presenting to senior executives is a daunting proposition. They are extremely busy and have to make many decisions under great time pressure. Your presentation needs to solve a significant business problem or create a strong opportunity if it is going to stand out. They are not going to let you make a nicely detailed presentation leading to the neat conclusion of your case.
The executives will want to know the big picture. 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.
In my experience, top 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 in some way. Aim to show that your recommendations will be readily funded and how your proposal will benefit the organization.
Use this persuasive formula for winning executive approval of your strategies
Deliver a presentation to senior executives with the following format for maximum results:
- Situation. A brief description of the nature of the issue, problem or situation that requires decision, action or review.
- The goal. A clear, concise statement of the task to be accomplished, or the target to be reached, and why.
- Analysis/assumptions. A brief description of the meaning of the situation, the implications and the assumptions central to the analysis. Decision-makers always need to know why, but not in great detail.
- Options. Try to provide at least 3 options for action on the situation as presented and analyzed. Four options are even better because they will limit the number of times a middle option may be chosen merely on the basis that it is the middle of the options. If there is only one recommendation, which is questioned, it will most likely die and the discussion will move out of your control. The ‘do nothing’ option should be included in your presentation. The optimal choice should be recommended and the fallback recommendations should be supportable. Be prepared to do something in between the things that have been recommended.
- Unintended consequences. These are the reactions or circumstances that could arise from suggested options or by doing nothing. Inadequate provision for consequences (risk management) can sabotage an otherwise useful strategy.
- Recommendation/call to action. The recommendation is obviously based on the line of action that has the strongest case. At the same time, be prepared to walk through a brief analysis of each of other options proposed.
- Benefit/s of action. Outline the benefits that will follow if the decision-makers accept your call to action. Otherwise, your CTA tends to become a ‘to-do’ request.
Summarize your case at the start
Get straight to the point. Lead with the ‘big picture’ information about the situation 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 in your analysis. The more urgent the problem appears, the more eager your audience will want to be offered a solution. They will be more motivated to prioritize your idea if they can see it will solve a difficult problem or will become worse without their attention.
Briefly outline the range of options and their financial implications, conclusions and your ensuing recommendation/call to action, and the benefits of such action. Support your main points with data and other main information. But don’t get bogged down in details.
You can use imagery and emotion to support your data. Read my article, “Use imagery to make compelling presentations” for helpful details on how you can use these to create a stronger impression – because your data may be too dry to make a big impact. When facts are central to your message, interpret the figures for your audience. Tell them about the implications of the rational data – what the end result will mean to the people it affects, or for the organization.
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 then 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 have gone well. However, brisk questions may well indicate their interest, and they are thinking through your case. Therefore, it is likely more questions mean more interest.
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 for a few seconds with each person in succession – without overdoing it. Don’t just rotate your eye contact to the next person in their order of seating, or your focus will appear to be mechanical and contrived.
Ask some open-ended questions to help you uncover their attitudes – and try to dig a bit deeper to uncover their real views.
Always rehearse your presentation – firstly by 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 senior executives 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.