The opportunity to present to senior executives is a good news and bad news venture. The good news is that it gives the presenter the chance to showcase his or her capability before the people in the organization who have great influence on promotions, assignments, etc. The bad news is that a poor presentation to these senior people can cast a giant shadow over the presenter’s future. An old saying is particularly apt—People may not remember a good presentation, but they never forget a bad one. Nor do they forget the presenter of a bad presentation.
The 10 tips below stem from my speaking experience, including being the senior intelligence briefer to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and are distilled from my training workshops, keynotes and my book The Shortcut to Persuasive Presentations. Adapt these tips to your own speaking, and you’ll not only avoid the career-damaging bad presentation; you’ll be eager to present to “the big dogs.”
1. A presentation to senior executives is not a speech.
In a speech you may use rhetorical devices and even humor. A presentation to senior executives is a more serious event, with these executives needing precise information in a condensed form and in a limited time period. Use short words, the active voice, and minimize jargon.
2. Know the informational needs of your audience.
Why are you giving this presentation to this person/group at this time? What pressing informational problem does this group have for which you can provide a solution? Talk to the senior person’s assistant and/or secretary if possible. Get as much “inside information” as you can elicit, including idiosyncrasies of the executives, such as buzzwords that turn them off or views about PowerPoint (just bullet points or slides filled with bells and whistles, or perhaps no PowerPoint). Frame your questions to these assistants as a means to help their boss, not to help you. After learning as much as possible—probably in a short time frame—on the needs and problems faced by this senior person, adapt your presentation so it addresses these problems. In your presentation, show the return on investment (ROI) and, if possible, a cost-benefit analysis. Remember that a presentation must be focused on solving the needs of these senior executives and the organization.
3. Learn the receiving style of the most senior recipient.
Prior to the presentation, learn how the senior person processes information, and if he/she has the habit of interrupting with questions. Some executives will want to linger on a PowerPoint slide, others may have a distinct dislike of the program. Most people receiving presentations can be characterized as either “bottom liners” or “analyzers.” The former does not want data-heavy, PowerPoint-laden presentations. The latter has an insatiable need for information. Woe betide the presenter who does not fit his/her approach to the particular senior person.
4. Draft backwards for a “bottom line up-front” approach.
We have learned to write and speak in a 1-2-3 structure: (1) Introduction – (2) Body – (3) Conclusion. For presentations, this is counterproductive: in contrast to reading a memo, audience members do not have the luxury of going back and reading again what they missed the first time. When you initiate your presentation draft with your conclusion, then the presentation will be focused on merging your objective with your audience’s problems, interests and concerns. Place your conclusion on a card marked (3), and then develop an introduction that signals the audience that you know its problems and will be offering a solution. Place this on a card marked (1). Finally, place your supporting arguments on a series of cards marked (2A), (2B), etc. You can have sub-points listed parenthetically. Having them will help if you must go to a “Plan B” presentation. (See #7 below.) You may even deliver your conclusion first, and then tell the audience you will now show the process you used to come to this conclusion. This “3-1-2” method, which I explain more fully in my book, enables the presenter to deliver actionable information in a “bottom line up-front” manner.
5. Conduct as many “Murder Board” simulations as possible.
The “Murder Board” is a rigorous practice session, similar to a flight simulator used for training pilots how to deal with in-flight emergencies. Select no more than four people to be your simulated audience, appointing one of them to role-play the senior person. Share with them all the intelligence you have gained on the group/person receiving the presentation. These four people will then role-play these executives. Their comments, questions and criticism help you correct your style of delivery, find the gaps in your knowledge and anticipate questions and objections. Prior to convening this Murder Board (a term with origins in the US military), practice solo with a tape recorder and, if possible, a video camera. These tools should then be used in the various Murder Boards.
6. Stand erect, avoid “uh” and “you know,” and devote most of eye contact to the senior person (but look at others as well).
Your credibility depends on a number of factors, the most important being your perceived (by the executives receiving the presentation) expertise on the issue. This expertise, however, can be undercut by a slouching posture, repeated use of those abominations of the English language noted above, and excessive reading of notes and avoidance of eye contact. Look at the senior person, then look at another person, then look again at the senior person, then to another person, etc. By so doing, you show that you know who is the boss, but you are also including others in your presentation.
7. Have a “Plan B” presentation ready.
The time you were told you had for your presentation could be reduced at the last minute, yet the information is still required. Consequently, it is wise to have a “Plan B” presentation ready. Perhaps you have been told you have fifteen minutes to deliver your presentation, but when you arrive, you are told you have only five minutes. If you have anticipated this occurrence—and you should have because it is likely to happen—you should have a shortened version of your presentation. If you have used the above 3-1-2 system, you will probably have sub-points to your “2s.” Eliminate the sub-points listed parenthetically, and you reduce the detail/time of your presentation, but you retain the essence. It is advisable to have a reduced PowerPoint file on a separate flash drive.
8. Be a “minimalist” with PowerPoint.
“Death by PowerPoint” has become an oft-used phrase, and with some justification The ubiquitous program can make or break a presentation. The advantage of using it is that most people are visual and can absorb information that is visually presented. The disadvantage is that the slides can become a crutch, and excessive use of extravagant slides can be distracting and confusing. As a presenter, you don’t want to have the wonders of PowerPoint remembered, but the substance of your presentation forgotten. When preparing a presentation, edit the slides so you use a minimum. As a rule of thumb, for a twenty minute presentation, have no more than ten slides.
Two pointers on how to use PowerPoint so it reinforces your message through the visual avenue to the brain—first, bring the bullets onto the screen one at a time. If you have, say, five bullets, and they come onto the screen at the same time, audience members will scan down, perhaps being attracted to one of them, and therefore not listening as you address the first bullet. By bringing the bullets on one at a time, you focus the eyes and ears of these executives at the same place. Second, it is not necessary to have words or graphics on the screen continually. When you want to give the audience a break, hit the “B” key, and the screen goes black. Hit it again, and the slide comes back on. If you want to jump forward to a slide, or backward to review one already shown, hit the slide number, then enter, and the desired slide appears on the screen. This means, of course, you must have a numbered list of the slides.
9. Be ready with a “Final Arrow,” but use with caution.
Most presentations end with the senior person saying, “Thank you.” If you notice that the senior person and the others are in a good mood, and not looking to leave immediately, imagine that you have an arrow in a quiver that is a reduced version of your (3) conclusion. While you are closing your laptop or picking up your notes, you can say, “Thank you, and let me just reiterate….” Do not say, “Thank you, and I would like to add one more thing…” By using a word such as “reiterate,” you send the signal you know your time is up, while at the same time you are repeating/reinforcing your principal message. Keep this “Final Arrow” under fifteen seconds.
10. Conduct a “post-presentation” analysis.
Our instinct after completing a challenging presentation is to breathe a sigh of relief and relax—big mistake. Within minutes, sit down with a notepad or tape recorder (or use your cell phone to call back to another number) and record the questions asked, the reaction of the audience to your presentation, your impression of your performance, etc. Don’t wait until the next day. Short-term memory is precisely that, and you will remember only generalities. The immediate analysis will provide specifics. Transfer this specific information to your database, and you have an excellent head start to use in the Murder Board leading to your next presentation.