For one moment, imagine you’ve been assigned to present your team’s quarterly earnings to the executives. And leading up to the big day, you rehearse and prepare. You sign into the conference software early. You test your audio and visual.
When the meeting starts however—you feel the nerves take hold. Your heart starts pounding. Your hands begin to shake, too.
You control your jitters enough to make it through your first few points, but then your company’s chief financial officer chimes in with a question that catches you off guard. That leads to the CEO to interject, and before you know it, you haven’t said a word in fifteen minutes. The executives carry on a high-level conversation without your involvement, and you never have the chance to get your presentation back on track.
This is a very common scenario professionals face. Many of my coaching clients feel intimidated by speaking to the C-Suite, who tend to be a critical, demanding audience. Presenting to executives can be challenging because it requires a slightly different skill set and approach versus presenting to your colleagues or boss. Here’s how to be more effective, persuasive, and commanding when speaking to C-Suite, and how to keep your nerves at bay.
Common mistakes to avoid when presenting to executives
Leading with context
Most professionals begin their presentations by sharing background information, details surrounding the circumstances for you being there, or explaining the journey of a product or service. While context is important, it inadvertently obscures your purpose. Starting off with too much context up-front can mean you risk executives disengaging quickly.
Talking too much or rambling
Similarly, you may fall into the trap of believing a longer presentation equates to greater value. In other words, you may assume that the more data and justification you present, the stronger your case will be. This isn’t true. Executives value brevity. It signals your mastery over a subject.
Being too attached to your script
It’s crucial to prepare in advance of meeting with executives, but there is also such a thing as over-preparation. Namely, I see clients rehearse their talk word-for-word. This backfires when your time slot is cut short or an executive throws an unexpected question your way, like in the scenario described earlier.
How to present to executives with confidence
Plan a preemptive meeting
A “pre-wire” is the meeting before the meeting. Pre-wiring is a form of doing your homework, and serves as few purposes:
- You can surface concerns and defuse objections, making negotiation easier
- You can gain valuable insight about what executives already know and potential gaps in knowledge so you can tailor your content
- You can uncover new details or consideration that lead you to adjust your presentation
- You can research their biggest pain points and criteria for making decisions
For instance, it may be important to share the agenda of a session in advance, so that executives are not surprised or blindsided by topics on the docket. Presenting your findings to the C-suite beforehand can also ensure they are supportive and in agreement, making your time go much more smoothly.
Having conversations in advance also allows you to build consensus and gain buy-in from stakeholders who are needed to execute your project. You may also consider speaking to colleagues who have presented to this group before to understand what worked and didn’t work.
Focus on “B.L.U.F.”
“B.L.U.F.” is an acronym that comes from the military and stands for “bottom line up front.” Instead of making the mistake of leading with context, you instead get to the point quickly. You begin
your presentation with the most important information first – whether that’s your request, call-to-action, solution, recommendation, or key conclusion – which helps you be perceived as a crisp, concise communicator.
Top leaders prefer B.L.U.F. because it demonstrates respect for their time and that you understand their needs and thought process. Having any answer—rather than no answer—is better than hedging because it leads to meaningful dialogue and shows you know how to make decisions.
Make your material memorable
Utilizing frameworks helps executives grasp onto concepts more easily. You may decide to number the steps in your approach, for example, or to categorize the phases of a project plan into pillars.
Another useful model is the SCQA format. After presenting your BLUF, your define the following:
- Situation. What is the context? Who are the players involved?
- Complication. What is the problem? What are the risks and opportunities?
- Question. What is your hypothesis? How can you overcome hurdles or capitalize on opportunities?
- Answer. What is your proposed solution? What data or insights back up your conclusion?
Hit all the areas of concern
The job of an executive is to focus on the bigger picture of an organization. They deal in vision and strategy, not implementation and execution. That’s why your presentation needs to focus on the what and why, not the how.
For example, if you’re presenting numbers of statistics, provide an interpretation and explain what the data means and the broader implications behind it. As you prepare your slides, continually assess how your content connects to the bigger picture. Some questions to ask yourself are:
- How will this help our customers?
- What will this do to position us in our industry?
- How will this help us beat our competitors?
- What are the underlying risks?
- How may our board, investors, or the market react to this decision?
- What can we do to bring down costs or optimize profit?
Keep it flexible
Executives are notorious for interrupting. They will have questions, and they won’t wait until the formal Q&A time to ask them. These leaders also have many demands on their plate, and your meeting time may get cut in half unexpectedly if they are running late or need to end early. All of this means you need to be prepared to pivot.
One strategy I suggest to my coaching clients is structuring your presentation like an accordion. In other words, design it so that you can expand or shorten it as needed.
Lastly, leave ample time for discussion. Follow the 10/30 rule: if you have 30 minutes on the agenda, plan for 10 minutes of content and earmark the rest for interaction. Anticipate questions seniors leaders may have, so that you’re ready to answer them on the spot.
Inevitably, presenting to executives can be nerve-wracking, but you can adapt your approach to show up prepared and deliver a talk that’s compelling and persuasive.
Melody Wilding, LMSW is an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work.