Executives place a premium on time.
Understanding this is the secret to successful presentations to the c-suite.
Now, not all senior executives manage their time the same way, of course. Some tightly schedule their time with no space open for flexibility. Other executives are more flexible, with allowances especially for brilliant, well-delivered solutions to their most challenging problems.
But if you’ve been asked to present to senior management, just know that the expected presentation style and format is likely to be quite different than what you’re used to.
I’ve put together this guide to help you know what to expect, but feel free to reach out for a one-on-one presentation strategy session if you think you’d benefit from personal attention.
As a communication coach I’ve guided many people through their first presentations to executives, and I can help you too.
Table of Contents
How to Present to Executives
1. Know the Difference Between Maximizers and Satisficers
Executives are the full stop decision makers. They are inundated with making decisions that can make or break an organization.
There are two primary decision making styles, which determines how they use information and the options they create from the information they gather.
Maximizers want all the data they can gather. They make well-informed decisions, however they are slow to get to the ‘very best answer’.
Satisficers only want the key facts. They have an agile mindset. They’re quick to connect the dots, decide on an answer, and adjust as they go.
As for what they do with the information, there are single focussed or multi-focussed option creators. In the single-focussed camp are executives who believe in deciding on one course of action. The multi-focused thrive on generating multiple options and may use many of them while adapting on the fly.
Within the Maximizers and Satisficers attributes there is more granularity, which can be categorized in four ways…
2. Decisive, Flexible, Hierarchic, or Integrative?
Some senior executives are decisive. They are prone to action and speed in their decision making. Decisive decision makers stay with a plan and move through each step. They are time conscious. When presenting to these types of decision makers, be candid and brief.
The next decision making attribute are those who lean towards being flexible. Like their decisive colleagues they move quickly, however they gather just enough data to connect the dots and make a plan, which can change at a moment’s notice.
A decision maker who is slow to make a judgement because they are gathering information and questioning colleagues assertions is considered of the hierarchic persuasion. For them, because of the amount of time taken to come to a decision, they believe that their decisions should be long lasting.
Integrative decision makers want lots of input, data points, and different points of view. They make decisions that are loosely defined and have many ways forward. Integrative decision makers welcome points of view different from their own. They like to be challenged. Working with them is a challenge for decisive types because getting a decision from them is a long road.
From the four attributes, consider how your executive wants their information. Are they looking for broad strokes or a highly detailed analysis?
Depending on circumstances, decision making attributes can change. For your executive presentation, take into account not just these decision making attributes, but also the current temperature of the state of the union.
Pro Tip: Do your due diligence. Find out how your executive prefers to interact. As you gain experience you’ll learn their preferences, but when you’re new to presenting to the executive suite, reach out to colleagues for their insights.
3. Lead With A Summary
Whether you’re presenting to an executive audience with a short attention span or one that is a bit more flexible, understanding how to start your presentation is key.
Executives will be looking for your deep understanding of the problem you’re solving right from your first words.
Provide an executive summary and key recommendation(s) right up front.
This may sound easy. It is not.
Collating your high level findings is one of the most difficult communication challenges to get right. It requires being laser focused and absolutely clear about the problem you’re solving and articulating your insight concisely.
Aim to craft a PowerPoint summary slide with a maximum five bullets, with five words per bullet.
4. Be Prepared To Be Interrupted
Executives are likely to interrupt you … even right in the middle of a key point. Be aware they aren’t being rude (or don’t consider they are). If you’re interrupted it’s because their thought process is ahead of your delivery. They are already connecting dots. They don’t have time to waste and want you to answer questions that are coming to mind.
Welcome the interruptions. It means you’ve interested and engaged your executive audience.
5. Stay On Topic
Unfocussed executive presentations are the death knell of careers. Executives won’t trust you’re the best person for the job if you are off track and deviate away from your topic.
I recently consulted as the intermediary between a board of directors and an executive team. This facilitation and advisory role was an ask from the board. The glaring issue was a number of the executives weren’t clearly articulating the problems they were solving. Often they brought forward a multitude of issues. Executives sometimes struggle with presenting too!
The board wanted to hear only one or two chief concerns. Because board members receive an information package before each meeting they are (or should be) apprised of the state of the union there’s no need to cover all current issues in your presentation. Organize your presentation to include just the most salient points.
To improve a presentation that lacks clarity or rambles away on tangents, be sure to do a thorough edit of every concept and statement you plan to deliver. Take out any extraneous words which could confuse your audience. A key takeaway from most executive communication books is that content needs to come first, and only then should you focus on the delivery.
6. Be Candid
One complaint I hear from executives and boards is that sometimes team members fail to give a candid executive presentation.
I suspect the presenter does not want to be seen as having the wrong solutions or answers. They are trying to save face while seeming to be full of confidence or bravado.
The executives I know are smart. They quickly know when a presenter is not being forthcoming. I’ve watched the interrogations that ensue. They are uncomfortable.
Sadly, what those who aren’t candid fail to understand is trust quickly erodes when their presentation doesn’t deliver all the relevant findings.
7. Connect Your Solution To Organizational Goals
You’ve heard the term ‘big picture thinker’. Executives want to work with this type of team member.
Always keep your line of sight focussed on the broader organizational needs and goals.
Consider this…will your insight and solutions:
- Support revenue projections?
- Decrease risk?
- Enhance competitive advantage?
- Open up new markets?
- Attract top-tier staff?
It is easy to wear blinders and stay focussed on your specialty or department. I’ve worked with organizations where Marketing does not ‘get’ the Sales department perspective, and where Operations can’t wrap their head around the direction of Human Resources.
It takes big picture thinking to realize that a company is only as good as the entire team.
Connecting your presentation to the organization’s overall strategy and vision communicates to the executive team that you have a deep understanding of the organization’s needs.
8. Have A Persuasive Why
Be prepared with the details for your recommendations, including a sound reasoning of why your solution is a worthy one. You need to be persuasive and prepared to substantiate why your idea is the right one.
The board I was working with had another issue beyond presentations that went off on too many tangents. Some of the team had difficulty articulating their reasoning for the solution they proposed.
You should go into an executive meeting fully convinced that your solution is the best one, and also be fully prepared to speak clearly and confidently convey your ‘why’.
Because executives are quick to connect the dots, you may or may not have the opportunity to explain your solution and your ‘why’. But have your ‘why’ in your back pocket. Be prepared.
9. Prepare For Every Possible Question
You are biased. We all are. Our inherent biases give us tunnel vision.
I’m sure you’ve invested many hours in your solution and presentation and think you have every perspective covered. You likely haven’t. To broaden your view, reach out to colleagues—especially those who have a holistic view of your organization. Consider reaching out to an outsider, someone that will bring a different perspective and who will pepper you with tough questions you may not have considered yet.
Check with a trusted advisor to ensure you have an answer for every question that is lobbed your way.
10. Use Clear Visual Messaging
Creating an on-message and engaging PowerPoint deck is challenging and time consuming. If you have the budget (or a colleague in the marketing department who is a graphic designer) enlist a professional to build your slide deck.
If you are creative and have time on your side remember the hard and fast rule of executive presentation planning—one concept per slide. Use inspiring imagery, engaging colour choices, and simple chart types.
Your visuals need to communicate a clear, easy to grasp message.
11. Rehearse Your Presentation
Rehearse your presentation in a way which mirrors what will unfold in real life. You’ll probably be interrupted throughout your presentation. Practice with a colleague who is an experienced public speaker, or a presentation specialist such as myself. Have them interrupt with lots of questions so you can practice being put off balance and learn how to easily get back on track.
12. Have Supplementary Data At Your Fingertips
Have you ever attended a presentation when the presenter deftly pulled out PowerPoint slides that were hidden or housed after the official conclusion? You want to be that person. Have relevant statistics and substantiating data waiting in the wings.
Executives need their teams to solve the problems that challenge them day in and day out. Although executing a successful presentation is a lot of work, professionals who can clearly, concisely, and confidently present solutions have a better chance of getting the executive team’s ear again by building the trust needed to have your projects receive a thumbs up.
13. Get Help
Building an effective presentation in a silo, without professional feedback, is hard. If you’re spinning your wheels, book a 1-hour presentation strategy session with me. I can help you deliver a presentation to your executive team so you are seen as a trusted advisor.
If you need more support to create a presentation from start to finish—from building content and slides right up to perfecting your delivery, I can help you with that too -> Prepare For Your Upcoming Presentation, Speech, or Talk.