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. Executives are extremely busy and have to make many decisions under great time pressure. They are not going to wait patiently while you make a nicely detailed presentation. 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.
Giving a concise overview, the executive summary is probably the most important part of your approval process. The executive summary literally enables busy senior executives to focus on the important points of your business case – whether it is an annual communication plan or a campaign plan. They don’t have time for detail. This makes you responsible for summarizing the key information. Therefore, your task in persuading them to accept your case is to stick to the big picture.
There is insufficient time to debate a full, detailed, case during an executive meeting. If you are presenting a proposal for an annual communication plan, you can provide all executives with an online or printed copy of the full document – but only after the meeting, not before or during the meeting! You make a big mistake if you distribute a 20-30 page detailed plan for the meeting. It will distract those executives and others when they go through their copy in the meeting. More annoying, they are likely to interrupt you by asking questions as they read minor details from your document. The same applies for any other detailed submissions when you want to make persuasive presentations to senior executives.
Therefore, only provide them with an executive summary for the meeting, and at the start of the meeting tell them you will distribute the detailed version at the end of the meeting, after question time. These are my recommended discussion topics for such meetings:
You should tell them the bottom line first, advises executive coach Sabina Nawaz in a 2020 Harvard Business Review article, “Presenting to management? Be prepared for the tough questions.” The key is to get quickly to the important points and recommendations, ask your audience for questions, and then finish quickly. Nawaz also advises, in a 2018 article, “How to blow a presentation to the C-Suite,” that you should spend 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/plan. 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!]
When calling for questions, you may find your audience slow to respond. Prepare for this by either priming one of your allies to ask the first question, or you could lead with a comment like, “Some of you may not be sure about keeping the total cost manageable. This is what we are planning to do to keep a cap on costs…” etc.
Nawaz offers a note of caution: Don’t count critiques framed as questions as healthy interaction. For example, “How can this possibly work? You haven’t accounted for extra headcount.” That’s not really a question. If your audience is curious and engaged, a genuine question will sound more like, “How would you deal with headcount if your growth projections are accurate?” So try not to become defensive: Rehearse so you can handle these critical types of questions/comments.
Write the executive summary and the rest of the plan so they can be read easily. This means avoiding complicated words, long sentences, jargon and corporate buzzwords. You can also make the summary easy to follow by using bullet point lists, which are easier to read, understand and remember than lines of essay-style text.
Logical flow is important. The reader totally depends on you to write in a logical flow so they are not puzzled by any generalities you make. Use the same terms and order of content in the executive summary as in the main part of the plan you later table. For example, if one of the main sections is called Campaign Goals in the document, don’t write this as Campaign Objectives when referring to this section in the executive summary. Also, keep the information in the same order. If one part of your documents covers Objectives, Challenges, Proposed Solutions and Benefits, keep these in the same order in the executive summary.
Too often people fall into the trap of either making assumptions of knowledge that the reader doesn’t have or of going into painful and unnecessary detail. Therefore, when preparing, look at the text from the point of view of your readers (your key stakeholders), fix them visually in your mind and edit the text down several times to make the wording as tight as possible while still encompassing the key points.
The crucial thing is to think of your readers, the decision makers, and try to understand their point of view – ‘what’s in it for them’. Then write the executive summary to appeal to their need.
C-Suite executives are very sensitive about their own turf. They are thinking, “What does this mean for me? Do I lose out on anything if this goes ahead?” 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 these decision makers may perceive your proposal as a threat or a poor reflection on them in some way. Aim to highlight that your recommendations will be readily funded (with minimal cost to their own budget) and how your proposal will benefit the organization.
Below, I explain more about making persuasive presentations to senior executives. You can also read some more helpful advice in my article, “Internal presentations are vital to your career.”
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.
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. As Sabina Nawaz notes above, 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.
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.
However, don’t use tired visuals. Nancy Duarte, CEO of the largest design firm in Silicon Valley, says in a PR Daily article, “5 common presentation missteps – and how to avoid them“:
Want your presentation to stand out (in a good way) from the others? Brainstorm lots of visual concepts—and throw away the first ones that came to mind. They’re the ones that occur to everyone else, too. That’s why you’ve seen them a million times in other people’s presentations. Generate several ideas for each concept you want to illustrate, and you’ll work your way toward originality.
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. This can be very helpful when you make persuasive presentations to senior executives.
Require cameras to be on. In hybrid meetings, it is important for remote participants turn their cameras on in order to show their full presence. It is also critical for you as presenter be able to engage visually with the entire audience, not just with those in the room. Therefore, consider asking in-person participants to bring their laptops and turn their cameras on, keeping themselves on mute when not talking. It can also be helpful to have a screen in front of the room so that remote participants can be seen by everyone.
Make direct eye contact. Begin your presentation by first looking deliberately and directly at the camera, which would presumably be located in your laptop. This sends the whole group a message that the people on Zoom are critical. Try to focus on the camera as if you were making contact with one person. Then throughout the presentation, continue to switch between looking at individuals in the room to returning your focus back to the camera. If possible, ensure your own laptop camera is placed as close to head-high as you can. A poor effect is created if you are seen by remote participants to be literally looking down at them through the camera for the whole meeting.
Always rehearse your presentation – firstly to yourself. The most valuable practice tool you have fits right in your pocket: your smartphone. Set your phone on a tripod or prop it up against a book, press record, deliver your practice talk, and then play it back. By watching your presentation, you will instantly catch distracting habits such as fidgeting, averting eye contact, or flipping your hair. Look for areas where you seem unsure of yourself or fumble your words. Those are the sections you’ll want to rehearse out loud or on the drive home.
Then rehearse in front of an experienced and trusted colleague who will serve as an honest coach. Try to find someone who’s had success getting ideas adopted at the executive level. Ask for pointed feedback: Is your message coming through clearly and quickly? Do your summary slides boil everything down into skimmable key insights? Are you missing anything your audience is likely to expect?
If this is a really important presentation to you, try to find people you haven’t met who are 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. The time you spend on this can be a real benefit for when you make persuasive presentations to senior executives.
Remember, going over a presentation in your mind is not the same as delivering the presentation in front of a crowd. The more you practice doing so, the less chance you will crack under pressure. At first, your body may react the way it was built to: Your heart rate may increase and your palms may sweat. But as you grow accustomed to being in front of an audience, even if it’s just one or two people, your body will stop exhibiting fight-or-flight symptoms. Soon enough, you’ll think of your speech as an opportunity instead of a threat.
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.
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.
Your busy audience of executives will certainly blame you if you end late. Treat your assigned time slot as sacred, and keep in mind that people have a 30- to 40-minute presentation tolerance. Go longer than that, and they’re sure to squirm.
By Silvia Arto, Vice President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, Chair of the European Regional
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