The executive perspective


July 27, 2022

Senior executives are busy people with (ridiculously) full schedules.  

Harvard Business Review says senior executives and management are increasingly buried in meetings. So when you land a slot on their calendar—you need to make it count. Presentations need to be short, to the point and speak to their pain points. 

However, even the best presentations don't always land with executives. As soon as you open your first slide, they may interrupt you, ask questions or display negative body language.

To win them over, you need to come prepared. In this guide, you'll learn how to do just that. 

Table of contents:

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Six battle-tested tips for a perfect executive presentation

Presenting to executives is daunting, especially considering the stakes at play.

Senior executives can be challenging for multiple reasons. They may be impatient or interrupt your presentation. Often, they come to a presentation with strong points of view, and it's hard to convince them to agree with you or change their mind. 

Executives also want presenters to get to the point. 

Startup coach Jeevan Balani remembers sitting in a presentation to an executive where the speaker was pitching a CMO was being pitched on a variety of growth marketing strategies. The first slide in the presentation showed a six-month timeline and a detailed roadmap, but the CMO jumped to stop the speaker. "Immediately the CMO asked “How can we do this in one month?” and we spent the entire hour just discussing that first page, and strategies to accelerate the timeline," he says.  

"No matter how smart and thoughtful the presentation was, the CMO knew we could not wait six months to see if the proposed plan would succeed."

So, how do you engage senior executives? 🤔

Here are six battle-tested tips:

1. Conduct a pre-wire

Host a meeting before your presentation to help you prepare. 

Gather leaders from your own company or friends who work in the same industry as the Senior Executive who will be attending your presentation. Then, ask them for their feedback and how you can improve the presentation. Specifically, the pre-wire should help you:

  • Spot problems in your presentation and any questions that may get thrown at you
  • Get insight into what knowledge the executives have on your topic and if there are any gaps in your presentation's content
  • Sharpen your presentation so it speaks to the executive's problems and pain points

Go one step further and share the agenda of your presentation so executives can check it aligns with their interests or needs. When you step into the presentation, there will already be a mutual understanding of what will be discussed so each party can prepare. 

⚡ Prezent Pro Tip: Always check your slides during the pre-wire. Each slide should be easy-to-read and have a clear headline. Aim to include three talking points (or less) on each one. It should be skimmable and still have your message come through loud and clear. 

Presentation expert Nancy Duarte, author of The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, also recommends putting each slide through a "Glance Test" to focus on talking points, recommendations, and next steps. Do this by asking questions like:

  • Will the executive(s) understand the point of the slide in under 3 seconds?
  • Does each slide have a clear message, or are there too many points being presented?
  • Does the presentation flow smoothly, or do you jump from point to point?
  • Is a structure used to tie the presentation to a storyline?

Have these conversations before meeting executives to build confidence and consensus for your presentation. 

2. Frame the topic quickly

In the first 30 seconds of the presentation, explain what will be discussed and how it fits into the executive's state of mind.

Be upfront about why you're there and prove to the executives you respect their time. A strong statement like this will frame the presentation from your first slide: 

"I'm here to give an update on the X project, which is in danger of missing key milestones in Q3. We can salvage it if we increase team productivity and lower costs in specific production stages, which I will discuss in depth over the next X slides."

A statement like this will help executives sit up, pay attention and get into the mental frame for the conversation. 

3. Set expectations for the presentation

After framing the presentation, explain how time will be used and what topics you'll cover. 

Here's where presenting to executives is a little different. You must speak to their main issue. You can pivot the presentation to match their pain points and concerns if they are forthcoming. Their time is valuable, so don't be afraid to ask if they want to do anything different. 

This will make your presentation more impactful and also proves you respect their busy schedule and time constraints. 

4. Use an inductive approach.

Start with the answer and then back it up with facts and evidence. 

At this point of the presentation, the aim is to prove to the executives that you are an expert and can be trusted with their business. As Dan Roam explains in Show and Tell, you can then make your presentation using three approaches:

🗃️ A report. Use information and data to make facts insightful and memorable

📝 A description. A practical explanation of how your solution will change the trajectory of their problem

🗣️ A pitch. How the audience can change their action to create a positive outcome. It provides a solution to a problem that's undeniable

Then, pause to ask questions to cement the impression that you respect the executive's time. It'll build their confidence in your pitch if you can answer their questions.

5. Spend 50% of the time presenting and leave the rest for listening 

Don't spend the whole presentation talking. 

Avoid the urge to add more content just because the meeting is important. Allocate 50% of the meeting time for the actual presentation, and leave the rest for the executives to open up the floor for a discussion. 

If you have 30 minutes with the executives—don't speak for any longer than 15 so there's time for questions. You will be interrupted, so leaving enough time for questions and input ensures nobody feels rushed. 

6. Be ready to zoom out and field questions

Finally, be open to discussing topics thrown at you by the executives. 

Don't get defensive if the question asked is not related to the topic of your presentation. If you've won over the executive's trust during the presentation, they will be more open to discussing what's happening at the company and high-impact projects they need help with. 

Be open to their thoughts and ideas. It may just end with a signed contract. 

How to work with (and win over) a difficult audience

It is hard to please everyone. A presentation that went off without a hitch with one executive may be met with complaints or objections by another. 

We usually label the latter as a difficult audience. But how do you spot them?

Difficult audiences are usually overly talkative, telling jokes and offering lively comments. They can also display a hostile or cynical attitude towards speakers or the topic they're discussing. Then there are the audiences who display negative body language, like folded arms or hunched shoulders, or are anxious about difficult company situations like layoffs.

If you're presenting to a difficult audience, here are some tips to win them over:

🐘 Address the elephant in the room

Acknowledge the main problem or concern the executives may have and get it out of the way. 

Research your audience in advance, so you know what topics are sensitive to them. Use this research to frame critical issues in a way that diffuses the situation rather than causing a commotion once the presentation starts. 

If you don't address the issues and they surface later, the audience can frame them in a negative light and steer the presentation off-course. Acknowledge them early and set the narrative to win them over. 

🤝 Acknowledge the problem and strive for mutual agreement

If an issue or concern arises during discussions with executives, be patient and listen carefully. 

Put yourself in the executive's shoes and aim to reach an agreement with them. Although it's hard, if you can acknowledge and be respectful of their different points of view, it'll make the discussion more fruitful and help win their trust. 

Acknowledge that the executive's problems are valid, and you can come to a mutual agreement without necessarily agreeing with them.

🕗 Stick to the subject, stick to the clock

Humans have an attention span that's shorter than a goldfish. Even busy executives run out of mental stamina and can't sit through long presentations and hold a meaningful discussion at the end.

Keep presentations brief and stick to a time limit. Keep the audience's attention by presenting key messages in digestible chunks (1-2 minute segments). If an executive interrupts or debates, explain your position and remind them there will be time for an extended discussion after the presentation.

Executives are a tough crowd, but it's possible to win them over

Executives are one of the harshest audiences, but they can also be the most rewarding. 

They are short on time and want to get straight to the point. This type of audience forces you to sharpen your presentations, cut any redundant information and get straight to the point. It's also a perfect environment to learn how to discuss difficult topics with an audience and diffuse situations in real-time. 

Executives are a tough crowd. Listening to them and answering their questions can win them over.

Want to learn more about mastering presentations? Check out Prezent's guide on structuring great presentation storylines.