The stakes are pretty high when you have the opportunity to present to executives. If you do a good job, doors fly open, projects get funded, and teams align. Executives wield remarkable power. Presenting to people with that abundance of power requires you to think even more carefully about what and how to present to them.
Ever notice that powerful people tend to be impatient and pelt you with questions before you’re even done presenting? It’s because they start to see the full picture from the moment you propose your idea. Executives get to where they are because they are smart and savvy. They spend vast amounts of time thinking about what’s best for the greater organization and marketplace. They have the uncanny ability to map out concepts in their minds and connect disparate dots quickly. Their seemingly impatient question-asking fills in the parts of the mosaic that they don’t see clearly. I admit I am an expert at this because, in my own company I earned the nickname “The Great Interrogator!”
But instead of wishing executives would change (we rarely do), you need to figure out how to adapt your presentation style for their needs. Using a metaphor from my books, think about your presentation as a journey and treat your audience as the hero, and view yourself, the presenter, as a mentor. After all, your audience members are the ones who have the power to bring your ideas to life.
If you get the opportunity to present a new product or initiative to your executive team, here’s how to prepare:
/01 Give them what they asked for.
Stay on topic. If you were invited to give an update about the something specific, do that before covering anything else. They invited you because they felt you could supply a missing piece of information, so answer that specific request quickly.
/02 Get to the point quickly
These folks are busy, so keep it short! Don’t build a case slowly, setting up context, or talking about last years’ performance. Instead, state your idea right up front, tell them what you need from them to make it happen and then provide supporting points until you get interrupted. Allow yourself plenty of time to prepare because it actually takes more careful planning to distill your ideas into a few key takeaways than it does to create an hour-long presentation.
/03 Plan for interruption.
Yes, you will get interrupted. If they give you 30 minutes, prepare 15 minutes of material and rehearse it well. If you’re not interrupted, you can use that extra time to open up the floor for questions. If they have no questions, you just gave them back 15 minutes of their day and guaranteed you’ll be invited back!
/04 Anticipate every response.
You need to be quick on your feet and confident in what you’re proposing…no matter what. If your presentation is really high-stakes, rehearse with a small team to get feedback on your messages. Have someone pelt you with unexpected questions as you rehearse your talk. That’ll help prepare you for the unexpected derailments.
/05 Anticipate. Every. Response.
Seriously, it’s worth repeating. I’ve had numerous opportunities to try out this approach, so I can personally vouch that it works. I recently spoke at a large venture capital event and, in the middle of my talk, a VC walked up to the front and shouted, “Why hasn’t anyone ever told us this before?” He loved the talk and wanted much more information…immediately. He conducted his own personal Q&A in front of an audience of 200 people and, thankfully, I was well prepared! (I won’t be crass by naming names, but as you might have already guessed, he was a pretty powerful guy.)
Executives want to get the information they need in as little time as possible. As you conceive, visualize, and present your message, your job is to convey that information as quickly, clearly, and flexibly as possible. Sounds like a lot of work, right? But when an executive knows that you’re well prepared and value their time, you greatly increase your chances of presenting your ideas again.