communicating 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 ;-)

Your turn. What are some of the biggest mistakes when communicating with executives?
Filed Under:   Career & Learning, Communication
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt
Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

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What People Are Saying

Scott Major Giese   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

Love this! Unsaid in this article is the basic lesson we learned in our English and Language Arts classes: know your audience.

Karin Hurt   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

Scott great to have you join the conversation. Knowing your audience is so key.

LaRae Quy   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

Love this list!

In my own experience, holding the tension between humility and confidence is a tough one—primarily because it’s so subjective.

It also very subtle. Confidence can so easily turn into cocky with a tone of voice or a tilt of the head.

Great article, as always!

Karin Hurt   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

LaRae, Thanks so much. I agree it is so subtle, but also worth the effort to explore. One of my MBAs had a breakthrough with her boss this week, where she had the confidence to really embrace her humilty with her boss and really hear what he had to say. She wrote me… I used confident humility and it worked! Let it be so.

Paul Robbins   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

I like to have something for the decision maker to do at the conclusion, such as signing a directive. This “closes the deal” for me, and the action symbolically makes the decision or policy “official.”

Karin Hurt   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

Paul, That’s an interesting approach. I’m curious if anyone else has tried that. I have not.

Dallas   |   05 December 2014   |   Reply

So much gold in this list. One of the most valuable I’ve seen so far Karin.
Add a few graphics and anecdotes and this is a valuable publication, feebie, join and get, etc etc.
I’ve bookmarked it.

Loved the Santa vid too. Its really well done.

Karin Hurt   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Dallas, Thanks so much. Ha! I actually have the graphics, because this is an except from a workshop I gave to a group of leaders this week. Great idea. I have another ebook in the works, it’s in the formatting stages and should be ready before xmas.

michael j capdevilla   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Hi im in network marketing having a hard time getting going ive been keeping up with ur emails like this article ive liked other ones u have had up in the emails if u have any tips that be helpful id appreciate it thank u

Karin Hurt   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Michael, Excellent. Are there particular areas that you are most interested in learning more about?

Eric Butts   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Asking for what you need is so crucial. Many times as a consultant it’s tough to admit you haven’t been able to persuade others in the organization and need a little extra push. If you don’t do it though it will be you on the chopping block instead of them when it really isn’t your fault!

Karin Hurt   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Eric, I so agree. Asking for what you need is vital.

David Pethick   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

Good post Karin.

One skill I work on regularly is being succinct. If you can make your point in one sentence, do so. Executives greatly appreciate a simple message, well stated.


David Pethick

Karin Hurt   |   06 December 2014   |   Reply

David, Yes! Being succinct is a wonderful skill.

Cynthia Bazin   |   25 July 2015   |   Reply

GREAT article Karin! I am sharing with my community. You are a rockstar leader!

Karin Hurt   |   26 July 2015   |   Reply

Thanks so much!