Talking to The Top: How to Make an Impact When Presenting to Executives


I recently had a very interesting conversation with a new client – a marketing manager at a high-tech company.  As part of our coaching we watched a video of her presentation at a large conference, where she had been rated in the top 5% of all speakers.  As we reviewed the video she said,

I just wish I could be that effective when presenting to our company executives.  My ideas never seem to connect with them.  I often don’t get past my first couple of slides and find myself fighting off tough questions and side comments.  I get frustrated and then I get even more nervous before my next presentation to them.

If you relate to her frustration, you’re not alone.  Many presenters find that even though they succeed with one type of audience, that doesn’t guarantee the same skills and approach will work with all audiences.   Each audience, and especially an executive audience, has its own unique issues and challenges.

Being effective when presenting to executives is important for two reasons.  One, the executives rely on you to provide insights and information that help them make decisions.  Second, the presentations are also a chance for you to boost your visibility and career by working with executives to solve problems and help the organization succeed.

If you currently speak to executives, or anticipate that you will in the future, the following steps will help increase the impact of your presentations.

1.  Know Their Style.  Get as much information as you can about how the executives like to receive information.  Some people focus primarily on bottom-line results, others on the logic of your analysis or the impact on people.   Use this information to tailor your approach to the audience.

2.  Start Strong.  Show that you have a plan for the presentation and will use their time effectively. In the first 30-60 seconds cover: the purpose of the presentation; your message or key point that you want them to take away from the presentation; an overview of your agenda; and what you want from them (feedback, a decision, information).

3.  Connect to the Big Picture.  Executives have a broad view of the organization, so show them how your topic fits with larger strategic initiatives such as revenue growth, cost cutting or productivity.  Identify the high-priority issues that resonate with executives, but avoid spending too much time going over information they already know.

4.  Be Honest About Risks and Results.  If you are asking for financial, people or other resources, be ready to explain how you estimated the ‘return on investment’ for your proposal.  There are risks and problems with every project, so show that you know what they are and have a plan for addressing them.  As you review the results you forecast for the project, clearly articulate the key assumptions that are not backed by data and need to be proven.  As much as you can, tell a complete and accurate story about the numbers behind your proposal.

5.  Prepare for Questions and Dialog.  You will get questions and challenges from executives, so be ready.  Approach these situations as an opportunity to talk with executives about the issues you are addressing vs. just pitching your ideas.  Build in time for interaction into your agenda.  Identify likely questions and practice how you will respond.  During the presentation, pause and take a short breath before responding to questions.  Be concise and direct with your answer.

When it comes to presenting to executives, preparation matters.  If you take the time to practice the above suggestions and tailor your content and approach to the audience, you’ll build credibility with executives, contribute to your organization’s success and open up doors for new careers opportunities.