Preparing to Present to Executives

You’re scheduled to present a proposal to an executive whose support you need. How should you prepare?

Consider the executive mindset. You don’t talk executives into things. They talk themselves into things. Executives don’t want to see a presentation. They want to hear a promising idea and then challenge it, test-drive it. They want you to tee up a decision quickly and then give them random access to your expertise.

Those of us who made a lot of presentations in school may think executives, like our teachers (and other authorities), want to hear us build logical arguments from the ground up or retrace the steps by which we developed our ideas. And, of course, we’re eager to get credit for all the work we’ve done.

What executives really want is the information they need to make a good decision.

First they need to know why they’re paying attention to you instead of one of the other urgent situations they’re managing — and they need to know that up front.

Next, they need to know what sort of decision you’re asking them to make so they know how to evaluate your proposal.

Finally, they need to get answers to the specific questions they use to sort good ideas from bad ones.

They want to get all of this information efficiently and on demand as their thoughts evolve during their conversation with you. If you can pitch your idea concisely and lead a discussion where you learn along with them, you’ll earn executives’ respect even if they’re not ready to get behind your proposal.

Here’s a plan for preparing a business case presentation for executives:

CONTEXT BEFORE CONTENT 

Before you outline your presentation or put a deck together, analyze your audience and the opportunity that this meeting presents.

1. What decision do you want the executives to make?

2. What is their starting point for this conversation? What do they already know (or think they know) about the idea you’re putting on the table? 

3. How is this idea related to other things that they care about, other initiatives they’re responsible for? What’s at stake for them?

4. What else is going on right now in the company or in the market that will affect how they see your proposal?

5. Do they have a history with you or your manager that could affect this conversation?

6. What sort of presentation do they want you to make in this meeting? How much time have they given you? Do they expect visuals? How long do they expect you to speak before handing off for Q&A?

7. Is anything particularly challenging about the room in which you’ll be presenting or the scheduled time of the meeting?

8. In addition to this context, is there any subtext at work in this meeting — that is, are there unspoken alliances or agendas that might influence the discussion or the decision?

As a rule of thumb, for an executive-level presentation, you’ll want to spend one-third of your preparation time analyzing the context and subtext. The more carefully you analyze the audience and their objectives and constraints, the clearer you’ll get about what you can accomplish in the meeting.

Now that you’ve identified your desired business outcome, you’re ready to start putting your presentation together.

ANTICIPATE THEIR QUESTIONS

Make a list of all the question you expect the executives will ask you. Make another list of all the objections you expect them to raise when you put your plan on the table. Executives typically vet a proposal by applying an appropriate framework (a sequence of questions or schematic). For instance, if you’re asking them to make an investment, they’ll ask about risk, ROI, fit with existing portfolio, and so on. Many of the questions will be easy to anticipate. To get to more unexpected questions and objections, you might ask people who present regularly to the executive you’re meeting with.

Once you’ve got your list, you’re ready to start verbally drafting responses. You’ll get more out of your verbal drafting if you do it with a partner. Have your partner ask a question from the list. You stand or sit (depending on how you’ll be presenting in the meeting) and answer the question. Get your partner’s feedback on your response and try again.

Verbal drafting is the best way to prepare to make your case. By talking your idea out, you’ll discover what you want to say and how you want to say it. You can’t create a presentation on paper or on slides and expect it to work in a conversation. You’ve got to create it in the same medium in which you’ll deliver it, by speaking aloud.

With repetition, you’ll boil your thoughts down so you can get to the point in your own powerful language. Verbal drafting is the quickest path to the word economy that makes you credible with executives.

Verbal drafting also gets your message into your system. You don’t need to memorize a script if you really know the story you’re telling. If you role-play your responses over and over, you’ll be able to land them with confidence when they challenge you in the meeting.

In addition to anticipating questions and challenges, check in to see if you’re dreading anything that might happen in this meeting. Are you concerned that tempers might flare? Could an overzealous colleague derail the conversation? Are you concerned that a key decision maker might not show up? Is there a matter of subtext that needs to be acknowledged sensitively — that is, with “strategic candor”? Whatever your concern, you’ll feel more confident if you make a contingency plan and role-play your response with a partner.

Likewise, if you’re concerned that one of your stress responses (or “personal red flags” like speaking too quickly, shaky hands or going blank) might give you trouble in the meeting, decide how you’ll watch for it and what you’ll do. (Breathing deeply and focusing outside yourself will short-circuit most stress responses.) Ideally, you’ll spend about a third of your preparation time working on questions and challenges, dreads and “red flags.”

NOW CONTENT

If you’ve verbally drafted the answers to all the questions you anticipate, you’ve got your content. It’s just a matter of organizing it for a discussion that they can drive. Remember, you’re not going to give a speech. You’re going to facilitate a discussion by putting a good idea on the table and following their energy.

First, identify your goal for the presentation. After role play and verbal drafting, you may decide to scale back your ask. Or you may decide that your case is stronger than you thought and you want to make a more ambitious ask. Just decide exactly what you want them to do. Verbally draft your request. Practice putting it decisively on the table.

Next, identify the three key points that you will offer in support of your request. For instance, if you’re proposing a strategic e-mail marketing campaign, your three key points might be: 1. Customized messages have a relatively high response rate, 2. It’s easy and inexpensive to design customized messages for each of our customer affinity groups, 3. The groups are large enough to deliver a good return on the investment.

Verbally draft each of your key points. If you’re finding a point hard to explain or difficult for an executive to believe, start thinking about what sort of evidence or visuals might help you get it across.

Now you’re ready to draft the most important part of your presentation, the launch frame. You have about a minute to get executives focused on your proposal and fully engaged in discussion. In your first sixty to ninety seconds, you have to deliver a very precise connection between what they know and care about and what you hope to accomplish in this meeting. You want to verbally draft this launch frame over and over until you have it in plain and simple language and can deliver it with precision and confidence. When you’ve got your launch frame down, you’re almost home. (See the post “Launching an Executive Presentation.”)

Also practice how you’ll make the ask and verbally draft some contingencies. What if you wind up scaling back your ask in response to concerns they raise in the meeting? In general, you want to come away from the meeting with some kind of YES, even if it’s not the one you hoped for.

Verbally draft how you’ll wrap up the meeting. Your strong close should include a summary of points of agreement as well as what didn’t get resolved, what you’re going to do next (as well as what they’ve committed to do) and finally a statement that reminds us why this discussion matters — that is, how your proposal bears on the things we all care about as leaders of this company.

Just so it’s clear, you want to be verbally drafting each of these pieces of your presentation and practicing aloud over and over. Each time you go over it, it will get simpler, clearer and better.

Finally, you want to identify the vivid specifics that will help executives understand and believe your arguments. Vivid specifics include compelling figures (“half of these are repeat customers,” “cut cycle time by 40%”) and analogies (“Lo-jack for your Laptop”) as well as clear statements of fact (“Every firm that’s fought a suit like this has lost.”)

You also want a visual strategy. You’ll need a visual anytime you’reasking your audience to interact with a table of data, visualize relationships among two or more variables, imagine the fit between parts in a complex system or see an actual image (like a user interface or product label). You probably don’t need a visual to summarize your three key points. If they are compelling and you state them clearly, the audience will remember them.

For anyone who excelled at writing academic papers, this preparation strategy may seem backwards. We’re used to writing, not talking out our ideas. We’re used to laying out a logical, linear presentation; not programming for random access. And we’re used to making our points and taking readers on our journey, not trying to anticipate how harried executives will make their own paths through our information.

An executive meeting is not a presentation in the usual sense. You’re not there to present a paper. You’re there to facilitate their decision-making process, to lead discussion, negotiate, learn and teach. This “backwards” approach attunes you to the executive mindset, gives you more comfort and confidence when you’re pitching your ideas and increases your odds of getting the decision you need.

©2014 Steven Tomlinson