The invitation to present to your organization’s senior executives is a pivotal career moment for many young professionals. Crush it (in a good way), and you make a name for yourself and show up on the radar screen as someone on the rise and worth watching. Stumble, and you make an impression as well, just not the one you wanted to make. Of course, presenting to executives can be challenging, with difficult questions and ample opportunities to stumble. A proper mindset, some advance intelligence-gathering, thorough preparation, and healthy doses of self-confidence and passion are all essential ingredients for success in these challenging presentations.
Presenting to Executives—Getting Beyond Nervousness and Sleepless Nights
I’ve worked with dozens of younger professionals preparing for their first executive group encounter, and to a person, all indicate losing a bit of sleep over the impending opportunity. There’s a natural fear we all face of standing in front of intelligent, successful individuals and being judged. And while there is some judgment taking place, here’s something you might not know that should help reduce your anxiety level just a bit: your audience genuinely wants you to succeed. Remember, these individuals are on the lookout for fresh, enthusiastic talent bearing exciting new ideas and solutions to vexing problems. You have a great opportunity to jump on to their radar screen for positive reasons when you nail your presentation.
Some first-time presenters are intimidated by the nature of the group. Yes, the make-up of these audiences typically includes successful individuals with ample experience backed by degrees from big schools. Yet, remember, they were once in your situation as well. Also, while they typically rose through the ranks as functional experts, they don’t have your current experiences or the benefit of your daily immersion in your work. They know you have a unique perspective to offer and are hoping to learn something from you that solves problems or identifies opportunities.
10 Tips to Help You Succeed When Presenting to Executives:
1. Frame the invitation in your mind as a great big opportunity
You don’t get invited to present to executives unless someone—usually your boss—believes you have ideas worth sharing. Executive meeting agendas are typically tightly packed and earning your way on, even for a short update, is a tremendous opportunity to gain visibility and experience. Of course, you need to prepare for this as if it’s the most critical next presentation of your career because it is.
2. Align with your sponsor
Whether it’s your boss or another senior manager who invited you to present, make certain to tune-in to their objectives for your portion of the program. Your first executive presentation is not an opportunity to freelance in pursuit of your pet projects or favorite ideas. Your goal is to deliver value to the audience, support your sponsor, and gain future invitations because the executives increasingly know, like, and trust you.
3. Know your audience
This one can be difficult for individuals who have had very little or no prior contact with members of the senior management team. Your sponsor or your boss may have some insights, and of course, it’s reasonable to err on the side of assuming that the group is comprised of successful, smart people interested in facts, well-developed ideas, clear plans and how all of this will help the firm achieve its strategic and financial goals. Ideally, seek out others who have presented to this group in the recent past and ask about the experience. Just a few of the key things I want to understand about this group includes:
- As much biography as I can garner about each of the individuals.
- An understanding of their respective areas of expertise.
- As much as I can garner about the power structure of the group.
- Anything I can gain about their special interests or pet projects.
- Which members are aggressive questioners?
- Their preferences for information consumption (slides, handouts etc.)
Armed with the advance knowledge, I am able to tailor my message as needed, or simply be prepared for the questions and interactions.
4. Plan your message with care
Whatever your topic is, you’re in front of the executive team for just a few brief moments. Use this time with the skill of an entrepreneur asking for investment dollars. Keep your message crisp, support your key points with examples and evidence, and be prepared to field some tough questions.
While most of us tend to launch powerpoint and think in serial fashion when preparing for a presentation, start by planning and tuning a message map before you build your first slide. (Note: in some settings, it’s OK to skip the slides…see point #8.) The message mapping process forces you to lock in a clear central theme and then defend this theme with key points and supporting evidence. A properly developed message map offers you the ultimate support for answering the expected difficult questions from your executives. Also, everyone will appreciate a crisp, well-developed message delivered with clarity and confidence. (For more on the technique, check out my post: The Career Enhancing Benefits of Message Mapping.)
5. Bring your confidence and back it with transparency
Executives are particularly attuned to confidence and smell “lack-of-confidence” in nanoseconds. They also are unusually sensitive to any attempt by presenters to dodge key questions or provide excessively sunny projections.
Confidence and transparency are two critical components that must be in attendance when you present to this group. A perceived lack of confidence will destroy your credibility in-the-moment. An attempt to mask risks with sunshine or offer visions of results that cannot be supported will end badly, in a hail of questions you are unprepared to answer or defend against.
6. Passion is positive and contagious to a point
If your passion for a topic is authentic, it’s priceless in my opinion. From long, personal experience I know that my passion for my work consistently works well with audiences. As an executive, I appreciated the passion of the engineers, project, and product managers who regularly presented to our group. However, if you find yourself having to manufacture passion to suit the event, you’re in danger of being discovered. Also, beware of making your genuine passion come off as overly sweet. There’s a threshold when too much energy for a topic starts to work against you. Keep it real and balance your passion for the topic with your transparency for the risks and challenges.
7. Speak, deliver, and defend your ideas with confidence and transparency
Did I mention the executive audience reacts positively to your confidence in your message? It bears repeating, even when you’re identifying risks and potential challenges with your idea. Sharing the risks and highlighting assumptions while offering a way forward will earn you serious credibility stripes. It goes without saying that having your message down cold (thanks to your message map) and ample practice, will ensure the confidence is authentic.
8. Clean and simple materials win the day
If you struggle at building clear, crisp, bullet-light and text limited slides or handouts, get some help. Call in a favor from a colleague or go into favor debt, but ask for help. Leave the text-laden eye-charts out and focus on providing clear images and diagrams. If you must use text, aim for one key point per slide.
Prior to creating any visuals or handouts, strive to understand the group’s preferences for information consumption. Increasingly, I run into executive and management teams where slides are strongly discouraged. If you must present without the support of visual aids, your message map is once again your best friend!
9. When confusion reigns, get to the whiteboard or flip-chart
If you are at all comfortable with your hand diagramming skills, a picture may be just the lifesaver you need if confusion over a point threatens to derail your positive presentation train. A polite acknowledgment such as: “Yes, this is confusing. Let me try a diagram to clarify,” is all you need. This shift away from words or words on slides to an image is often a powerful method for regaining attention, drawing participants into the discussion, and ultimately eliminating confusion. And, frankly, it is impressive to the audience that you had the courage to adjust your approach on the fly with the skill of a practiced instructor.
10. Admit it if you don’t know it, and then do your homework quickly
Said another way, never, ever make stuff up. While this piece of advice might seem unnecessary, the pressure of presenting to senior management is potentially overwhelming, especially in the face of tough questioning. You are much better off admitting you don’t know something than attempting to bluff your way through the answer. The best response in this situation: “That’s a great question and instead of hazarding a guess, I will get back to you today.” And then do it!
The Bottom-Line for Now:
I’ll end where I started. An invitation to present to your organization’s top management or board is a golden opportunity. The prevailing attitude of the executives before you open your mouth is one of interest and hope. You wouldn’t have made the agenda if they weren’t interested in hearing and learning from you, and you can bet that good executive members are always excited to have intelligent and confident new voices in planning the way forward for the firm. Make a great impression and you will be back. Perhaps in a new and improved capacity!