Innovation, Technology, and Life in the Cloud

George Watt

10 Tips for Effective Presentations to Senior Executives

“When Techs Talk to Execs”

Strategies for Effective Communication with Senior Managers
                                                                                                        – George Watt

Recently it has been widely acknowledged that the most effective senior technical people are those who can communicate with impact not only to other technical personnel, but also to those with other, varied backgrounds.  According to a recent presentation by Forester approximately 49% of CIOs are “non-technical”.  This is just one illustration of the fact that communication with senior managers is critical to anyone wanting to advance an important initiative . . . or their own career.

I have witnessed too many cases where great ideas, poorly communicated to senior executives, come to an abrupt end sometimes taking a career or two with them.  In a recent article I mentioned the importance of speaking in business terms.  Some people never get that far.

Here are some strategies for people with a technical background who must communicate with senior managers and other personnel who may or may not have technical background.

When communicating with senior executives and managers, consider the following:

1.     Less IS More – Start with the Most Important Point (Begin at the End)
2.     Consider What Is Most Important to your Audience
3.     Tell the Time, Not How the Watch Works
4.     Use Questions to Empower the Audience and Confirm Less IS More
5.     Practice Your Message, Anticipate Questions (The Rule of Three)
6.     Write a Script
7.     Reduce Your Footprint
8.     If All Else Fails . . . Tell Your Story, Your Way . . . Backward
9.     Have Your Backup (Sometimes More IS More)
10.  Only Wide Receivers Should Go Long – Stay On, Or Under, Time

The remainder of the paper will expand on each of these items.

1.  Less IS More – Start with the Most Important Point (Begin at the End)

The most important thing to remember when speaking to senior managers is to begin with the most important point.  Some might say “begin at the end”.  In some cases this may run counter to our culture or “to our being”.  We have been trained to educate.  To lead people to arrive at our conclusion by sharing some history and leading them through the points that brought us to the point ourselves.  To build a case.

It is my experience that senior executives think in exactly the opposite way.  They want first to understand the value of a proposal or solution . . . before they invest time in exploring it.

With that in mind it is important to begin at the end.  If your proposal will result in $7 million in savings then let that be the first thing you share.  Use an impactful statement such as “Our project is ahead of schedule with 92% of relocations complete” or “Our recent training program has resulted in a $4 million productivity gain”.

Think of it in these terms:  Each executive has a light above their head with a pull-chain switch.  When you begin your conversation or presentation the light is on.  Their hand is on the chain.  Your initial mission is to gain their interest and get their hand off the chain.  (You have 2 minutes.  Maybe.)  You need to answer the questions:  “Why should I listen to this person?”  “What’s in it for the company?”  “What’s in it for me?”

State the purpose of the meeting (e.g.:  To obtain approval for…, to provide an update on…), request permission to proceed, say thank you, and then open with an impactful statement.

2.  Consider What Is Most Important to your Audience

Beginning with an impactful statement (i.e.: getting right to the point) is important.  The statement must also have relevance to your audience.  If you are speaking with more than one executive be sure to consider whether all of the executives you are speaking with have common interests.  If they do not, make sure to consider adding the relevant “and” to your impact statement.  For example, speaking to a Sales executive and the Chief Sustainability Officer you might offer an opening line of this nature in order to capture their attention:  “I am pleased to report that our project added $2 million to our top line revenue and reduced our carbon footprint by 450 tons”.

3.  “Tell the Time, Not How the Watch Works”

I recall leaving one of my first ever customer visits as a field engineer.  A customer had asked me a fascinating question.  I had never considered the problem or solution the customer had asked about.  It was very challenging and I was excited because I had thought of a very good solution to the problem on the spot.  The customer had asked a question in the form “Can your product ?”  I wove a tapestry of technological wizardry that would have made the most talented rug makers jealous.  My answer had to be at least five minutes in length.  The meeting went very well.  On our way out of the building Paul, the Sales Executive, put his hand on my shoulder and said “George, sometimes the answer is just ‘yes’”.

That is more often than not the case with senior executives.  They want the short answer.  If they want an explanation they will ask for one.  If you find yourself uncertain you can offer one:  “Yes.  Would you like to know more?”;  “Yes.  Would you like me to explain how?”

Imagine if you asked someone what the time was and they began with an explanation of how the crystal in their watch vibrated at a constant speed…  By the time they got to the time you would likely have forgotten what you had asked them.  Most of us have been on both ends of a conversation like this.

Senior executives are typically under tremendous time constraints.  In my experience they are grateful to and appreciate very much people who can get to the root of issues quickly.

4. Use Questions to Empower the Audience and Confirm Less IS More

A common trap that people trying to practice “less is more” can fall into is rushing through too quickly.  Ironically it is possible to offer too little.  It is therefore good practice to ask confirming questions, especially if you have summarized something large, critical, or complex.  For example, when showing a detailed project plan you might state something such as “This is our plan.  We are on time and within budget.  Do you have any questions?”  When showing a process flow diagram you might state something such as “Here is our customer intake process.  Would you like me to step through it for you?”

Asking questions of this nature adds a small pause to allow your audience to digest your material or statement without adding too much of a delay or disruption in the flow of your conversation or presentation.  It is a good idea to keep in mind the fact that these senior executives are where they are for a reason.  They likely have a wealth of experience and are typically very good at digesting a large amount of information quickly.

Asking questions of this nature also helps to confirm whether you are delivering relevant information and shows respect for the authority of the senior executive.

5.  Practice Your Message, Anticipate Questions (The Rule of Three)

It may be a statement of the obvious to note that anyone who will be presenting something to senior managers should rehearse their presentation.  However, what we often fail to remember is that almost every interaction with a senior manager is a “presentation” of a sort.  A meeting in an elevator or a brief encounter in the Café can be every bit as important as a formal presentation.

It is important to “carry with you” the executive summary for your important projects.  Have that “we have completed 92% of relocations and reduced expenses by $2 million” summary in your head at all times.  When asked a question think for a moment about the reason for the question.  “What about my project would be of most interest to a person in this position?  To this person?”

When preparing for a meeting or presentation it is also beneficial to view things from the senior managers’ perspective and try to anticipate questions they may ask.  For example, if preparing for a presentation ask yourself what questions may be asked about each and every slide, and about the presentation or topic overall.  Then prepare answers, in executive summary form (less is more), for each of the questions.  It is amazing the difference this can make in the level of confidence you will have in yourself, and the executives will have in you in return.

The rule of three:  The first time you present something to a senior manager (or anyone, really) should be at least the third time you are presenting it.  Practice at least twice as if you are with the executives.  Even if you are alone stand, gesture, and anticipate and respond to a few questions.  That will help you to set the message and flow and is likely to make you much more comfortable during the actual event.

If you can find someone willing to participate in your practice and to give you feedback then do so.  If you do so it is strongly recommended that you follow the rule of three and rehearse prior to your “live” practice session.  That should help make the session even more effective.

6.  Write a Script

Once you have your message refined it is almost always worthwhile to write it down.  Writing it will not only help you to refine the message it can also often help set the message clearly in your mind.

Include not only your message or presentation, but also the questions you anticipate along with the answers you would give.  Having a written practice Q&A can dramatically improve your ability to answer questions succinctly.  The act of writing the Q&A can also help you to identify key items that may have been left out of the main body of the presentation, or even items that should be removed.

It is fine to refer to your notes during a presentation.  If you are presenting in person reading the entire presentation directly from your notes is likely ill advised.  If you are presenting via teleconference you may be able to use your notes more actively.  Some people are able to read an entire script during a teleconference and deliver an effective presentation.  If you are not confident that you are one of those people then it is recommended you not do so, or that you practice with someone who will provide honest feedback.

Your script may also be of great value if ever you are asked to speak about the topic at a time you were not expecting to.

7.  Reduce Your Footprint

If you have time to review your notes or slides, take the key points and try to restate them in fewer words.  Changing the grammatical voice of a statement can sometimes help.  Less is more, and the more you practice this the better and more effective your message will be.

Begin by reducing the key points.  Time permitting, move to secondary points and the answers you prepared for the questions you anticipated.

8.  If All Else Fails . . . Tell Your Story, Your Way . . . Backward

If you have been trained to build a persuasive case, to “tell a story” it may be very difficult for you to begin at the end.  If this is the case try writing your story the way you would normally write it.  Then take the end of the story (e.g.:  “and we saved $15 million”) and make that your first statement or slide.  Keep the storyline, you may need it.  Just begin with the most important point.

In many cases this may be the only way to prepare an executive summary.  There have been cases where I have spent hours preparing a presentation with many, many slides only to realize that most of the detail would be of no interest (at least initially) to the senior executives.  After some rework those presentations become 3-5 slides and 10-15 minutes in duration.  Some of the most effective presentations I have delivered lasted 10 – 15 minutes; even though they covered large and complex projects that lasted many quarters.

Preparation is paramount.  The shorter the presentation, the more important the preparation.

9.  Have Your Backup (Sometimes More IS More)

It is important to note that the fact that you may lead with something very brief, or you may have a brief presentation planned (3-5 slides, for example), does not mean the executives will never be interested in details.  The point of this paper is not to state executives never care about details nor that they are incapable of digesting them.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  In some cases the senior managers you are speaking with may wish to get into the details.  You might state “This is our process, would you like me to step through it” and receive the response “Yes, please”.

Thus, though you may not plan to present the details you must be adequately prepared to do so.

In these situations you may also need to put some of the other strategies into practice.  For example, if more than one senior manager is present it may be the case that only one of them is interested in the details.  Though there is no magic formula in these cases a well considered question can often make your presentation more effective.  For example, when asked to dive into the details you might ask “Is that something of interest to everyone or would you prefer I cover this with you alone following the presentation?”  A question of this nature can help keep you from situations where some key executives lose interest while you go through details which they either have no interest in or do not understand.  Caution is critical, and your question must be asked respectfully; especially if you feel there is someone present who may not have the background necessary to understand the details.  Please be careful not to be perceived as patronizing.

10.  Only Wide Receivers Should Go Long – Stay On, Or Under, Time

This may be one of the most important items to consider.  The calendar of the most senior executives is typically an insane tapestry of logistics.  It is important to stay on, or under, the time allotted.  Under is best.  If you have thirty minutes of an executive’s time and you can get your point across in ten then do so.  Practice hitting that time target.  That will leave some time for possible late starts and for questions.

If you begin that thirty minute meeting on time and finish in ten minutes the senior executive will very much appreciate your getting to the point and respecting their time.  That will dramatically increase the likelihood you will get more of it when you need to.

Originally published, May 2009
© 2009-2019 George Watt

11 comments on “10 Tips for Effective Presentations to Senior Executives

  1. Travis
    February 29, 2012

    Excellent article, thanks.

  2. paul ignatius
    March 9, 2012

    great one dude

  3. paul ignatius
    March 9, 2012

    great discussion.

  4. Terry Pisauro
    May 1, 2012

    well put, George.

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    January 8, 2013

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    March 23, 2013

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  9. Pingback: When Techs Talk to Execs | jspoke

  10. Dennis Sullivan
    January 11, 2015

    Great points in your article. It is a reminder to ‘consider your audience’ before every presentation and address the topics/issues important to them to deliver the most value. We can all benefit from your blog as a refresher to improve our presentation skills. Thanks for re-posting.

  11. Pingback: How to present technical stuff to a non-technical audience | Star Training

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This site contains articles regarding entrepreneurship, innovation, and the practical aspects of deploying, providing, managing, and using cloud computing, and other technologies. I also share my thoughts and experiences related to consumer driven IT, social media, management issues, and about what some refer to as “soft skills”.

All works copyright 2009 – 2019 George Watt – All rights reserved.

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