Presenting to Senior Executives: Why the Rules are Different

By: Bart Egnal

Presenting to senior executives can be a stressful experience. The stakes are typically higher: your presentation may be used to assess whether to enter a new market, shift strategy, invest capital, or launch a new product. The audience is often an unfamiliar one; you may only interact with an executive or her team once or twice a year. And the pressure to not only deliver what is sought, but also to demonstrate your own capabilities can be high.

But these obvious pressures are also accompanied by a set of less obvious but real ones, which can be summarized as: “Same game, different rules.” 

In my 20 years of coaching senior executives – and the people who present to them – I’ve come to see that senior executives have very different expectations for those who present to them. And that they rarely articulate those expectations to those they invite to speak to them. Now, all individuals are unique and all company communication norms vary, but in my experience here are the three secret rules you must understand if you are to successfully present to senior leaders. 

Rule 1: Don’t Bury The Lead

Start with your conclusion. Start with your conclusion. Start with your conclusion. 

Too many presenters wait until the end to share their conclusion. They go through the challenge given to them (e.g. “I was asked to evaluate four markets we could expand to.”) Then they go through how they approached that challenge, to establish that their conclusions were soundly reached. (“Let me take you through the criteria with which we evaluated each market… now I’ll take you through how each market fared… now let me tell you other factors we considered…”) Senior leaders don’t have the time (or often the patience) to listen to this context. 

That’s why you should begin with your conclusion up front, within the first three minutes of your presentation. As Lori Messer, Global Head of Business & Client Services at RBC Capital Markets says, “I tell people: get your message as clear as possible and with as few words as possible. I grew up in a trading world. Seconds matter so be succinct if you want my attention.” 

What does a single, clear message sound like? Something like, “The key idea I want to leave you with is this: of the four markets we could enter, Latin America offers the greatest upside for our business.” 

Rule 2: Show Only The Work You Need To 

Once you’ve delivered your message, resist the temptation to go into exhaustive detail to prove that your conclusion is sound. 

The tough reality for many presenters is that they spent a hundred hours to build 20 slides… and that their audience probably only cares about three of them. Yet those presenters too often feel they need to “show their work” and go through each of those 20 slides. While more junior audiences will usually sit patiently and listen respectfully, senior executives rarely do. Instead, they interrupt, begin asking questions or even shut the presentation down and move to their own discussion. This can fluster or even offend many presenters.

The key is to understand what your audience needs. The best way to do this? Ask them. After you deliver your message, you can engage your audience by inviting them to tell you what they need to validate or understand your conclusion. You might say, “I’ve prepared content around the research we did on all four markets, the criteria we used to evaluate them, and why Latin America is the most compelling. But you let me know where you’d like me to focus so we can make the best use of our time.”

Think of this as tailoring your arguments in the moment to reflect the unique needs and concerns of your audience. It will shift you from the role of presenter to someone shaping their thinking directly.  

Rule 3: Spend More Time Prepping for Q&A Than You Think

Hearts and minds are best moved through dialogue, and that dialogue takes place through questions and answers – so prepare accordingly.

Q&A is where executives can challenge and test your assumptions, methodology and conclusions. It’s where they will show you their own concerns and doubts about what you are sharing. Yet most presenters spend 10 hours building slides, 1 hour rehearsing… and ZERO hours roleplaying Q&A. This is partially because the presentation has the illusion of control; you build the “perfect deck” that you will master and deliver to applause. Q&A by contrast is chaotic, unpredictable and stressful (check out my earlier blog post on the subject). 

That’s why you should dedicate several hours to preparing for the questions executives will inevitably ask you. If you have an executive sponsor, have them “stress test” you by firing the toughest, most aggressive inquiries they can think of before you go live. Get your answers crisp. Get your messaging clear. Have your supporting evidence ready. Because it’s during that Q&A period that your audience will really make up their mind about your main presentation.

The Rules

It’s a truism that what got you here won’t take you there, and this is definitely the case when it comes to presenting to executives. While you should get to know the unique demands of your audience, always start with your conclusion, share only the evidence relevant to them, and be sure you are ready to ace the Q&A. 

Executives will thank you for it. And maybe sign off on your recommendation.