Master the Struggle of Working with Executives on Presentations
By Nancy Duarte
Executives are b-u-s-y and working with executives on presentations is not e-a-s-y. Their calendar is often fractured into a million pieces, so they have only shards of time to think about their next talk. If the Vulcan mind-meld were a real thing, building a talk for them would be easy-peasy, but it’s not.
Instead, you’ll have to anticipate their next move and brace to work in fits-and-starts. No matter how prepared you are, your exec will still have that epiphany in the shower the morning of their talk. Fortunately, over time, we’ve fine-tuned a few tips that have helped us wrangle crazed leaders:
Know the audience: If you’re the communications or marketing person, you may have been the one who felt the gig was important for the exec to deliver. Either way, it’s your job to channel the audience at every phase of this project. When you brief the exec about the talk, make sure you give them all the background on the audience and have them agree to the audience journey. The first slide of your working-deck should have a Big Idea and the audience journey emblazoned on it. It should look like this:
Use the audience’s journey as a guidepost and bring the executive back to it as a centering device—because they’ll want to chase a hundred other shiny objects that aren’t relevant to this audience.
Know the executive: In many ways, marketers are the company’s (and executive’s) folklorist. Collect a bevy of stories and experiences that the exec can pull from to add emotional appeal to their talk. When your executive delivers stories authentically and those stories match the audience’s perspective, the audience forms a bond with your brand that no other communication device can achieve.
Constrain their whims: Sometimes an exec doesn’t understand how much effort things take. They may ask for something that to them seems like a simple request, yet it might cost days to execute. For instance, an offhanded comment like “toss a chart in here from our Asia office,” could mean spinning five people in your market insights group for two weeks. In reality, the chart may not be central to the point and rather just a curiosity. Don’t hesitate to push back so they understand the impact of the request and can determine if it’s worth the effort.
Create a presentation war-room: If possible, set up a visual working space close to the exec’s office so when they’re moving from meeting to meeting they can see a sonogram of their talk taking shape.
We learned this first hand in our early days at Duarte. Instead of launching into slideshow mode, post the presentation on the wall, or open your deck in slide-sorter mode so the exec can see the meta-structure. This way, they’ll be comforted to see that their pet slide is in at slide #9 and will calm down enough for you to walk them through what you’ve built. Have the main structure run horizontally across the top so they can skim the top points and then have your supporting points at the bottom. This format was the inspiration for how we built our training courses at Duarte for writing presentations.
Writing talks for some execs is exhilarating while working with others will leave you wanting to peel your fingernails back. Empathy plays a big role in determining the ultimate experience for both parties. Execs need to empathize with what you’re doing, and you need to deeply understand the roots of their behavior and intentionally figure out how you can map to their way of working. Some execs are just mean, but most aren’t. If you give them a small window into your world, they’ll work to make you both successful.