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How to have more confidence speaking to executives

Presenting to Executives: How to Have More Confidence

by | Dec 6, 2021 | By Karin Hurt |

When presenting to executives, don’t forget what makes you an expert.

You’ve been working hard, and the project is totally on track. And now, the executive team wants an update. It’s natural to feel nervous. But, if you stumble through the presentation, you’ll likely end up with a pile of action items just to prove the project is in good hands. Follow these tips to have more confidence when presenting to executives.

“Why do these executives have to be so intimidating?” #AskingForaFriend

Karin, the last time I found myself presenting to executives they made me so nervous. Lisa flipped straight to the back of the deck we had spent a week preparing. Juan asked if I had involved his team in any of these recommendations (I had not, my miss). And Mark started with a few questions that I just couldn’t answer. Then, I got so nervous, I couldn’t answer even the basic questions, which made me look stupid. I don’t blame them for being frustrated, but they sure are intimidating. How do I get better at this?  The next time I’m presenting to executives, how do I show up with more confidence? #AskingforaFriend

Depending on your organizational culture, presenting to executives can feel like skinny dipping in shark-infested waters. I spent many years in a scene like that.

The best way I’ve found to stay confident and maintain my executive presence during such inquisitions is to focus on my team, the outcomes we need, why this work matters, and the support we need.

Depersonalize the conversation. Remember, this is not about you. It’s about the work. Your customers. Your team. Sure, you care about your career and the conversation in the next talent review, but when presenting to executives, the best way to showcase your leadership is extraordinary execution.

And then, give the executive team the benefit of the doubt. They’re passionate, tough, and asking great (albeit possibly intimidating) questions because they care deeply about the outcomes, just like you. It’s unlikely they woke up this morning trying to figure out how to scare you and make your life more difficult.

7 Ways to Gain More Confidence When Presenting to Executives

To have more confidence in your next executive presentation, start here.

1. Draw confidence from your expertise.

I’ve always wrestled with the term “fake it till you make it,” because there’s a difference between faking expertise and confidence. If you’re being invited into this particular conversation, someone thinks you’re the expert. Start by drawing confidence from that.

If you’re wrestling with imposter syndrome, you can even take five minutes to brainstorm your “Why I’m the most qualified to talk about this” list.

And, if you’re being asked to represent your team of experts, reframe your brainstorm to “Why my team is qualified to talk about this,” and be sure to do your homework to represent your team well and give them credit and advocate for their needs.

2. Plan your opening.

When presenting to executives, what you say in the first thirty seconds matters. Sure you’ll want to thank them for their time and your team’s contributions, but not first. First, tell them why they should listen.

Why are you here?

  • To share results and put their minds at ease that the project is on track?
  • Or, to make a case for vital resources?
  • To pitch a new idea?

Start with WHY it’s so important that they listen to you.

Chances are, by the time they’re listening to you, they’ve already been wrestling with some really important topics and trying to weigh some heavy decisions. Assume their brain is already on overload. What can you say in the first thirty seconds that will get them to want to focus on what you have to say next?

3. Write down your most important points.

When presenting to executives, I always encourage leaders to write down their three most important points. In the swirl of conversation, it’s easy to forget what you most wanted to say.

Writing down your main ideas can also help you draw the conversation back if it starts to go sideways.

4. Ask yourself all the important questions in advance.

One of the best ways to gain confidence in presenting to executives is to be prepared for any question that comes up.

Ask yourself this question about everyone you anticipate in that meeting, “If I were __________ (insert tough executive’s name here) what would I want to know about this project?”

Another side effect of regularly asking yourself (and your team) this question is that you’ll develop your own (and your team’s) critical thinking skills.

You can even bring up some of these questions before they ask. “If I were you, I might be wondering …” And then, answer the question. You’ll gain credibility as the executives think, “Yeah, that’s EXACTLY what I was wondering. Thank you.”

5. Stakeholder controversial issues in advance.

Another way to feel more confident presenting to executives is to know you have friendly supporters in the room. You can do this in several ways. If you have access, you can do a few pre-meetings with key decision-makers before the executive presentation. If not, it can work just as well to check with their direct reports.

“I’ve already met with your team on this topic, and here’s what they thought is important for me to include.”

6. Create a leave-behind.

If your topic is complex, you probably have a fancy Powerpoint deck with great data and a solid argument. You can find tips for better executive Powerpoint presentations here. 

And, it’s possible someone is going to ask you to “skip to the end,” or just “net this out for us.” Or, the hour you thought you had to present may be cut to ten minutes.

Creating a one-page leave behind helps you to streamline the most important points, and helps you to prepare for the short-cut presentation as needed. And, of course, it also serves as a useful resource if the executives need to go back and share this information with their teams.

7. Know your ask.

Interestingly, the question many managers find the most difficult when presenting to executives is, “What do you need from us?” Be prepared to share your ask. And if it’s truly just an update, you could say, “Actually at this point, I don’t have an ask, but if you could drop a quick note to _____ thanking them for their work on this, that would go a long way.”

Remember, you’re in the room for a reason. Start with confidence in your own expertise and the work you’ve done and then work to anticipate the conversation and streamline your response.

Your turn. What are your best practices when presenting to executives?

See also: How Do I Show Up with More Confidence (an interview with Hilary Blair)

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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