Over my career, I have received, given, or simply observed thousands of briefings, pitches, and proposals. There is a clear delineation between effective and ineffective presenters and business-development winners and losers. If you want to be an exceptional marketer or salesperson, you have to know how to present your ideas and recommendations to executives.
If the majority of the PowerPoints and proposals that I’m exposed to are indicative of the current state of presenting skills, I’d say most of us have significant room for improvement. Before you panic, this is a good thing. It means that there is a golden opportunity for your firm to outshine its competitors and for you to add immense value to your firm, its clients, and your career.
Executives want three things:
1.) A well-defined issue
2.) Recommended solution options and rationale for suggesting them, and
3.) Costs and tradeoffs for each potential solution.
Here’s how to present to executives effectively so your proposals win and your ideas get implemented.
1. Be crystal clear on the purpose and outcome on which you are being asked to present.
It seems self-evident, but if there is no agreement on the problem, then there will be no agreement on its solution.
For example, leaders may agree that the issue is a falling revenue number but they may have significantly different opinions on what is causing the problem. Marketers blame sales, budgets or competitors’ tactics. Salespeople blame marketing and product deficiencies. Product teams blame incompetent salespeople. Strategy consultants see only a strategy problem. HR consultants see only a people problem. IT consultants see an IT problem. Agencies see a creative problem. You get the hammer-looking-for-a-nail message. Don’t be that person.
Get consensus on the issue and its cause BEFORE you present recommendations to solve it.
2. Define the problem in executive speak.
Executives do not define problems in terms of the number of website visitors, social media followers, or marketing-qualified leads. They define problems in terms of revenue, costs, risk, culture, growth, reputation, effort, and speed. Speak accordingly.
3. Revalidate the issue before you provide a solution.
You should have done much research, questioning, probing, and testing of your prospect or leadership team before formulating your recommendations. When it’s time to present your recommendations, revalidate the problem to ensure that nothing has changed and your recommendations are still relevant. Don’t waste executives’ time because you’re operating on outdated information. If disagreements have lingered, don’t present your recommendation before you get the requisite problem defined.
4. Start with the conclusion.
This is the most important element when presenting to executives. Don’t build dramatic tension to get to a big “reveal.” Nothing is more annoying to executives than having to wait for some grand storyline to play out over 75+ slides. Executives do not care about your brand, project management minutiae, or your “proprietary process.” They want a result and they want to know realistically what it is going to take in terms of resources, time, and effort to get to it. Get to the point!
5. Rationalize Your Recommendation.
The statement, “Here is what we recommend you do to solve this problem and why” should take up the majority of your presentation. Explain your thinking and justify the approach. Neither apologize for nor discount the value of your solution. You owe the executive team your absolute best thinking regardless of the solution’s cost. If the best solution is $1 million, then so be it. If it can be fixed for $1000, then great. Just explain why!
6. Provide the costs, risks, and tradeoffs of each potential solution.
Executive decision-making is predicated on opportunity costs. Cover the issue/solution from each executive’s perspective and its impact on their KPIs and functional organizations. They want to know “If I choose your alternative, what does not being able to choose its alternative cost me?” That’s why executives make the big bucks; they make strategic choices that have ramifications. Your job is to give them the best information and insights to make them.
7. Be prepared to go off YOUR track, onto theirs, and back to yours.
The truth is that you are not “presenting.” This is not a lecture. It’s a facilitated discussion. Executives drive the engine, but you control the track switches. The goal is to beat up ideas, look for weaknesses, identify opportunities, and get to the strongest decision in terms of risk and return. Let the process play out and stop worrying about getting through your slide deck. You got through the most relevant slide by starting with your “conclusion.”
8. Consolidate feedback and outline action items.
Presentations are pointless unless they result in action. As the facilitator, your job is to enable decisions. Consolidate agreement on the solution and outline action items. Take steps to respond to unanswered questions, bring in other relevant stakeholders, sign an agreement, or get to work on the project.
9. Kill the big, long agenda.
Your presentation outline is simply: 1.) recommendations and 2.) next steps. Drop the “intros,” “our methodology,” “our team,” and “questions.” Normal social interactions include short introductions and rapport building. Just do it. Fold your methodology and team information into the rationale and cost of your recommendations. For example, “We chose Bob to lead the team because we see these issues and want to manage these risks. He is our best person to make sure we produce X results for you.” Or, “We will use this approach because we believe that we need to produce this result in this way in order to produce Y outcome.” Don’t make executives wait for your “question time” to ask a question. Remember this is a discussion, not a lecture.
10. Be confident.
You would not be presenting if the executives did not think that you had the expertise and track record worthy of the opportunity. Act accordingly. If you don’t believe in yourself, then you should not be presenting. Build your confidence elsewhere.
11. Drop the perfectionist persona.
Executives expect competence, not perfection. You do NOT need to know the answer to every conceivable problem. Practice saying, “Good question. Why do you ask?” and “I don’t know, but I will find out and get back to you by the end of the day.” See these as opportunities to demonstrate problem-solving capability, responsiveness, and humility.
12. Say thank you.
Your mom already taught you this one.
By the time I achieved a level of seniority in my career, I realized that the most successful executives managed meetings with their peers and vendors quite differently. Each meeting had a specific purpose to produce a result in a chess game that, up to that time, I never got to see. Executives are resourced-constrained. They have too many fires burning and too many irons in their fires. Your job is to reduce the number of fires and irons, not to add another one.