The Art of the Executive Presentation

10 keys to success in the boardroom

Ben Smith

April 24, 2006

6 Min Read
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Sooner or later, your job as an IT manager will require you to make a presentation to your company's executives, and maybe even the CEO or board of directors. Executive presentations are high risk?high reward activities, and you should look forward to them. To help you do so, here are 10 keys that can ensure your success.

10. Dress and Act the Part
People make assumptions about you according to the image you project. For example, if you dress too casually, slump in your chair, or fail to enunciate your words, your audience might believe that you lack respect, are lazy, or are uneducated. Recognize that such judgments are constantly in play and learn in advance of your presentation what the expectations will be of your appearance and behavior. Remember that corporate cultures vary greatly. For example, years ago as a consultant, I had one client whose executives would not have taken me seriously if I were dressed in anything more formal then blue jeans and a button-down shirt.

9. Set Expectations
Set clear expectations ahead of time for your presentation's outcome. You'll gauge the success of the meeting by how well it meets the expected outcome. For example, if the purpose of the meeting is to get executives to make a decision, be explicit in the meeting invitation that invitees will need to make a decision on a given issue. If the purpose of the meeting is to solicit executive brainpower to help you think through a certain topic, then be clear about that. At the least, failing to set expectations properly will waste everyone's time. At the worst, it can negatively affect your reputation and relationships with executives. Meetings should never end because the scheduled time has elapsed—they should end when the identified goals are accomplished.

8. Get the Right People in the Room
Few things are more frustrating for an executive than having to repeat or reschedule a meeting because the appropriate people aren't in the room the first time. Invite all the people who can accomplish your meeting's goals. If you're asking for a decision, invite people who have rational and realistic dissenting opinions, rather than only those who support your position. For the greater good of the company, you want executives to make well-informed decisions, rather than one-sided or partisan ones.

7. Be Specific and Clear
Everything you do and say in your presentation should be purposeful. Begin by stating the meeting's expected outcome before facilitating introductions, if they are necessary. Avoid overstatement and editorial judgments. I once saw an otherwise effective executive presentation go down in flames when the presenter said, "Obviously, this is true..." Unfortunately, what the presenter felt was obvious wasn't obvious to the CIO; in fact, the CIO had been leaning in the opposite direction and considered the editorial comment an insult. A good rule of thumb is to follow the advice of Dragnet's Sergeant Friday: "Just the facts, Ma'am."

6. Plan for 3 Minutes
Executives are far more used to talking then they are to listening. Don't depend on having more than 3 minutes to state your case before you're barraged with questions, observations, or even seemingly random tangents. The first 3 minutes is almost certainly the only time in the meeting in which you'll be in control of the presentation—use it wisely. Don't waste those precious minutes presenting background material or discussing minutia.

5. Avoid Unfunded Mandates
In the course of executive presentations, executives often ask for additional or even completely random deliverables. Too often, presenters agree to these extra projects without fully understanding what's required to complete them. Once you agree in this forum to take on a deliverable, you'll be expected to complete the assignment and report back. If you're at all unsure whether the deliverable is reasonable or that you can take it on, don't agree to it on the spot. A better approach is to note the request, say that you'll need time to determine the resources it requires and its impact, and give a date by which you'll respond with this estimate. One of the worst possible outcomes of an executive presentation is to leave with unfunded mandates.

4. Be Confident
By the nature of their position, executives are confident, ambitious people, and you should be, too. Mind your body language: Sit upright and use direct eye contact. Speak loudly with a tempered pace. Be energetic and positive. Take your time when you're asked a question to avoid thinking out loud. Acknowledge what you do not know and recognize reasonable and realistic dissenting opinions.

3. Get Advance Buy-in
Before your presentation, get buy-in to your position from stakeholders and strategic thinkers who will be attending the presentation. First, executives are more hesitant to make decisions if stakeholders disagree. Second, all executives have key strategic thinkers they look to for counsel. Discussing your position with these people in advance will allow you to address their concerns in advance. Doing so increases the chances that you'll be successful in swaying executives and also serves as proof of your preparedness.

2. Avoid Death by PowerPoint
PowerPoint is an effective presentation tool in many situations, but the executive presentation is not one of them. Not only do you run a risk whenever you connect computers to projectors, but the transition to the projector will interrupt the flow of the meeting. Most important, when you turn the lights down, you'll be sapping the energy in the room. If you must use PowerPoint for collateral support, give organized printed handouts to each attendee.

1. Know Your Subject
The biggest mistake you can make in an executive presentation is not to be in command of your material. Executives, even if they're completely ignorant of the actual subject, can spot whether you know your material the moment you start talking, whether by your body language, your approach to the topic, or the actual words you're speaking. One technique executives commonly use to determine how much a person really knows about a subject is to ask probing and precise questions. They may or may not actually care about the answers to the questions—what they're really doing is assessing your depth of knowledge and thought to see how dependable you are as an authority on the subject. Expect this behavior. To a large extent, the other nine keys are irrelevant if you fail in this area; conversely, you'll get a break in the other areas if you truly are an authoritative and dependable source of knowledge on the topic at hand.

Arts and Sciences
Presenting to executives is much more an art than it is a science. As you gain experience, you'll learn what works best for you and for the particular executives you're working for or with. Who knows? Before long, you might be sitting with them on the other side of the table.

About the Author(s)

Ben Smith

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