communicating to executives

The 9 Biggest Mistakes When Presenting to Executives

Executives are naturally a tough audience. They’ve got limited time, competing priorities, information overload, demanding bosses, and pressure to make great decisions quickly. Your job is to give them all the information they need in a way they can easily digest. Most of us have stories of times when the message we tried to send was not the message received, and the tidy PowerPoint presentation spiraled downward in a frenzied fiasco.

9 Mistakes To Avoid When Presenting to Executives

1. Undermining Your Credibility. The execs will only buy your message if they believe you know what you’re doing. It’s vital to show up confident and strong,

One of the smartest women I know stayed up late every night the week before her presentation doing deep research and getting the presentation just right. No one in the room knew a tenth as much as she did on the subject. But when one exec made a snarky remark, she lost it and burst into tears–tragic credibility buster. Exhaustion and too much caffeine prevented her from responding calmly and redirecting the conversation.

Other credibility-busters include weak words such as: “I guess;” “This is above my pay grade;” “You all are a lot smarter than me.” You are the expert. Show up strong.

2. Lack of Confidence in Your Own Argument. Do your homework so you can answer the tough questions well. Be confident enough to challenge faulty thinking in a professional and respectful manner. State your argument with clarity and confidence.

3. Lack of Humility. At the same time, these men and women are in their positions for a reason. They’ve got perspective you may not have. Listen carefully to really understand their concerns. Write down their suggestions. Be sure they feel heard. Know that as much as you know, you don’t know it all.

4. Unclear Objective. When I’m working with leaders on honing their executive presentations, I’m often surprised how few can articulate their primary objective. Be sure you can complete this statement in one sentence.  “As a result of my presentation she/he/they will ____________.”

5. Underestimating the Audience. Executives can often be hard to read, but there’s a lot going in their quick-thinking brains. Do everything you can to learn about the executive’s goals, competing priorities, decision-making styles, and political dynamics. This isn’t easy, but it’s a worthwhile investment. Talk to those who’ve presented in the past. Talking to key members of their team is another great option.

6. Failure to Connect with a Stakeholder. If the topic is complex and/or controversial, it’s going to be tough to get traction in a room of opinionated execs. Seek out a few key players to ask for their opinion in advance. Incorporate and acknowledge their thinking. It will show you’ve done your homework and also have a few friendlies in the room supporting your argument.

7. Boring Delivery. Its likely yours is the fifth or sixth PowerPoint deck they’ve seen that day. Spice up your data with a strategic story, metaphors, or illuminating statistics with powerful comparisons. Classic research by Hermann Ebbinghaus shows that most people forget 40% of what was said within the first 30 minutes. Be sure your message is memorable. A great, easy read to inspire better presentations is Get to the Point: How to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want.

8. Overstuffed Slides. You know a lot, or you wouldn’t be in the room. Resist the urge to throw it all up on your slides. Use clean visuals (not cute clip art) that represent your message with a few key points per slide. Always include a punch box at the bottom with a 5-7 words that articulate your main idea for that page. If you can’t come up with a punchy summarizing statement, consider if you really need that slide.

9. Failure to Ask for What You Need. This sounds so obvious, but it’s one of the biggest mistakes I see. Be very clear on your proposed next steps and what you need specifically from whom. Funding? Support from above? Communication with their organizations? Resources? Sure, some details may need to be worked out later, but be sure you can answer the question, “What do you need from us?”

P.S. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently helping managers hone their skills in this arena. Contact me if you’d like to learn more about how I could help your team communicate their ideas and results with powerful, confident humility. Santa did…just saying 😉