Presenting to an exec? Here’s how to make your point and get the answer you want

Note: This post was originally published on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/sbenzur

Meeting with your boss, or your boss’ boss, or your boss’ boss’ boss’ boss, can be stressful. They’re busy (read: impatient) and they’re decisive (read: you only get one shot), so you have to get things right (read: seriously, don’t mess up).

So how do you make an executive who’s potentially never thought about your topic, not only understand it, but also give useful feedback or make an important decision about it?

It’s not as scary or mysterious a task as it might seem.

1. Know their backstory and integrate it 🔍

I don’t just mean, know their name and their job title. I mean, know what they’ve been spending their time on lately. Know what keeps them up at night. Know what makes them smile. Just like marketing, if you know your target persona, you know what kind of content to show them, and you know how to move them to action.

When you know what their pain points and motivators are, you should make sure to frame your presentation with that insight in mind. How is your topic helping resolve that pain?

Some ways to get this information are:

  • Talk to their EA. Executive assistants know all. Seriously. They know your executive’s mood. They know where they’ve been traveling. And they know how much mindshare they will have for your presentation.
  • Talk to their direct reports. If your boss reports to the person you’re going to present to, ask them these questions.
  • Look at their OKRs, goals, KPIs or whatever other measuring tool your company uses to track progress. Pro tip: If the person you’re talking to doesn’t have any goals related to your topic, then it might be worth asking whether you’re presenting to the right person at all

2. Remember, execs aren’t omniscient, so KISS 👇🏻

Having the executive title doesn’t mean that you magically know all the things, all the time. Typically you know several things, and then rely on the smart people around you to know the rest.

So, if you’re presenting to an exec, pretend you’re presenting to a family member who has no idea what your job is. Keep It Simple Silly.

  • Seriously, simplify, simplify, simplify. You don’t need to tell them everything about everything. Just the most important facts that are relevant to your discussion. If you can’t figure out what those are, then you have more homework to do and you’re not ready to talk to your exec. It’s critical that you as the subject expert can identify what 2 to 3 pieces of information are important, and leave the rest for the “appendix section.”
  • Don’t get into the weeds. Don’t use hyper technical language (unless the exec lives and breathes the same stuff you do). The quickest way to make someone tune out is to start using jargon they don’t understand. When you do that, you force your listener to either ask for clarification, or they will just give up. Depending on the person’s style they could go either way. Neither is good for you. So mitigate the chances of that happening by staying high level.
  • Use metaphors. Metaphors are probably the most powerful presentation tactic you can use. The reason is, that the biggest hurdle in presenting is getting people to understand a new or complex concept with very little time. If you can associate your new concept with a pre-existing one that people already understand, that will do a lot of the heavy lifting for you.

3. Give them a specific job and define the rules of engagement ✋

Have you ever been presenting to an executive, and experienced one of these terrible scenarios?

  1. You’re talking, but your exec is typing. You’re staring at them, but they’re staring at the screen. You feel like you’re the teacher from Peanuts. Wah, wah, wah, wah.
  2. You’re 15 seconds in to your 20 minute long presentation and your executive starts peppering you with questions or giving feedback that completely derails you. And you walk out of the meeting with 10 new action items, and 0 decisions you wanted.

Chances are, you didn’t give your executive a specific job, or you didn’t define the rules of engagement. And, what you’re experiencing is the result of an executive either feeling like they’re not critical (and thus would be better off spending their time answering emails), or they don’t know exactly what you want from them so they make an assumption (and you know what they say about assuming).

Here’s how to command the room, and get the feedback you’re looking for:

  • Start with context. You know how so many great stories start with “once upon a time.” They’re giving you background context before jumping into an heart of the story. Why do they do that? So that you get emotionally invested, and care about the topic. If page one of a book started with, “And then Shanee jumped really high,” you’d probably have a bunch of question mark bubbles coming out of your head–who’s Shanee? Why is she jumping? Do I care? Probs not. Same goes for your presentation. Don’t just jump into the middle of your story. While you may have been knee deep in your topic for the last 6 months, I bet your executive hasn’t even dipped their toe in the water. So, give them the cliff’s notes of the first 100-or-so pages of your book, before you get to the climactic decision.
  • Establish the job to be done by the exec. This is called managing up. You’re not the one taking direction, you’re the one in charge here! Tell your executive exactly what it is you need from them during or after your presentation. Define this as the beginning of the presentation. AND, at the end confirm whether they did their job. Do you need them to say yes? Write that down on a slide. “The goal of today’s meeting is to make a final decision on the Smith proposal.” Do you want them to give you feedback but no decision? Say that too. Do you just want to inform them of something, with zero feedback? That’s fine, but it may be better to say why they need to be informed. And when you’re done, say whether or not your executive did what they were supposed to. And, if they didn’t, make that a follow up action item.
  • Tell them the rules of engagement. Ok, this is probably the most important tip of all so pay attention. It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to interpret things, to understand them, and then give feedback or make decisions. That’s what you’re asking the executive to do. While you’ve had lots of time to think and noodle, they don’t. Make that job easier but telling them how to think. For example: “This is our first attempt at this, so don’t worry about the formatting. All we need you to do is tell us if the idea is viable.” <– In this example you’re giving your exec permission to completely block out the formatting if your deck and only think about a specific thing: the idea. Or another example: “I’m going to walk through all three examples, and then afterwards I’d like to get your feedback. Probably best to go through all these first before we start talking.” <–In this example, you’re giving your exec permission to just sit back and listen. Then you will need to guide the discussion after.

Bonus tip: GIVE THEM THE RIGHT ANSWER

In the specific case you’re presenting your executive with a few options, and you need them to make a choice, here’s how to increase your chances of getting the answer you want.

Just tell them which one is right. No joke. The power of suggestion is…well…powerful.

Show your three options. Show the reasons why each has costs/benefits. And then end with a suggestion around the choice you think is right. Add in the reasons why you believe your choice is the best choice. Now, your executive has even less thinking to do. They get to see how thoughtful you are, and you’ve made it easy for them to say yes.

The alternative is you make an incredible presentation and then end it with a big open ended question that unlocks lots of uncertainty, like, “ok what do you think.” You’re making them come up with their own criteria for decision on the fly. And, as we’ve established, that’s just too darn cumbersome.

So, do your exec a favor, and tell them your suggestion.

Bringing it home

Give these tips a try. And at the end of the day, remember: execs, they’re just like us. They’re overwhelmed, they’re busy, they’re doing their best. Help make their job easier by: knowing what matters most to them, keeping things simple, defining your exec’s role in the meeting, and guiding them to the answer you believe in.

Good luck!

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