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Presenting to senior executives

Scott Beagrie

Presenting in front of a senior management team requires preparation, practice and confidence. Scott Beagrie looks at how to deliver a high-powered performance

Your ability to present has a direct impact on how seriously you are taken by senior management and the board of directors. Presenting to senior executives means shifting your presentation skills up a gear.

With presenting being part and parcel of a manager’s routine work, it’s easy to assume that everyone is polished and proficient at it once they reach a certain stage in their career, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Alana Inness, lead consultant at talent management consultancy Getfeedback, is increasingly aware of a ‘skills void’ in middle management, with some managers not even understanding the basics, let alone being equipped to deliver a truly engaging presentation.

One of the most effective ways of securing the undivided attention of a senior level audience is to highlight how your proposal is going to positively impact the organisation’s bottom line or tackle an urgent business requirement

“Graduates tell me giving presentations is one of the most important skills they learn and yet many managers I meet have been in the workplace without any development in this area,” she says.

“Most people are not natural presenters – it takes knowledge of the techniques and then practice to become really great.”

Don’t even think of stepping in front of the potentially unforgiving audience of a senior management team unless you are fully confident that you can acquit yourself well.

01: Know your audience

Ideally, you will already have an idea who is on the executive team you’re about to present to and have a general understanding of their leadership style.

Informally build on this knowledge ahead of the presentation. Try to get the inside track on their expectations of the project and presentation, as they are likely to be extremely high. 

Talk to others who have previously presented to the team to find out more about their personal preferences. Do they like PowerPoint or highly visual presentations with colourful slides, sound and sophisticated graphics? Are they likely to interrupt with quick-fire questioning five minutes into your delivery? What are their particular pet peeves? 

Some might view multimedia technical aids as a prop for poor speakers to hide behind, for instance.
Also, consider talking to their individual secretaries or PAs who will have heard their various presentation grumbles over the years.
Get to know the senior management’s individual standpoints on the issue in question and consider whether anyone might feel adversely threatened by your recommendations. 

And find out their knowledge levels of the issues you’re focusing on: they may only want to hear a broad overview, or they may want in-depth detail on the who, what, where and when.

It is crucial not to spoil your pitch by over- or under-estimating how much they know about the subject matter, so do your homework.

02: Sell the benefits

The ultimate aim of any presentation is to wow the audience and persuade the decision makers to translate your idea(s) into action. 

One of the most effective ways of securing the undivided attention of a senior level audience is to highlight how your proposal is going to positively impact the organisation’s bottom line or tackle an urgent business requirement or problem. 

Make sure you have the necessary substantive financial data and deliver that information upfront in your opening lines. 

There’s a school of thought that states the two most critical stages of a presentation are the first 30 seconds and the last 15 seconds, so you need to get your point across quickly and end your pitch memorably. 

Show that you understand the language of business and can speak it confidently, but use well-considered arguments instead of jargon, advises Inness. 

“Demonstrating clear thinking and robust analysis through the clarity of your message is the key to ensuring your credibility,” she says. 

03: Think of it as a performance

Some presentation gurus think that how you look and come across is more important than what you say.

While no one would advocate that slick presentation skills should ever be used to gloss over poor content, there is little doubt that approaching the task as if you were in a stage production can significantly increase your impact. 

A great deal is written about how Apple co-founder Steve Jobs brought a sense of drama to his presentations to help convey key messages. 

While it is essential not to go over the top, all too often individuals who are presenting lapse into what can only be described as presentation mode and fail to display any passion, energy or enthusiasm for their communication. Review and rehearse your presentation rigorously before you step in front of the senior team. Returning to the on-stage analogy, be prepared to improvise. 

Impatient executives with short attention spans might want you to fast forward through your presentation to a particular visual or section of information or throw your meticulous timing off course by asking detailed questions about a key point. 

This may mean you’ll need to lose a chunk of your presentation to finish in the allotted time. 

Finally, while it’s imperative that you adhere strictly to your time slot, win yourself extra kudos with your time-pressed audience by finishing early.

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