The No. 1 secret to having a successful executive presentation is to KEEP. IT. SIMPLE. Nearly three-quarters of all initiatives fail, and those failures—which take both a human and economic toll—are usually attributable to a simple lack of focus. Think about this: How many times have you sat in a presentation that left attendees looking (and probably feeling) confused? Conversely, how many times have you watched a presentation sail along and end with everyone on a clear path forward?
The art and science of delivering a solid presentation may seem like a “nice to have” rather than a “have to have,” but the reality is that, by applying basic communications principles to your presentations, you will find yourself on the road to leadership support—and successfully accomplishing your projects more quickly. But delivering a presentation that resonates in the hearts and minds of executives doesn’t just happen. It requires four shifts in your approach.
Shift 1: Know Your ‘Who’
People don’t make decisions based on facts alone. Knowing your audience allows you to connect in ways that resonate and increase your overall credibility. It adds a level of authenticity to your presentation and empowers you to be open, honest, and real—three key factors that increase trust. There are several ways you can learn your audience:
- Research them online; look for bios
- Understand their communication preferences based on recent speeches or questions they’ve asked
- Observe their environment (e.g., how they organize themselves, what they display in their offices)
Once you’ve identified the audience members who may have the biggest effect on the adoption of your idea, answer the following questions to establish common ground:
- What are they like?
- Why are they here?
- What keeps them up at night?
- How can you solve their problems?
- How might they resist your message or ideas?
- How do they make decisions (slowly or quickly, charismatically, skeptically, based on past experiences)?
- What did they say in their most recent discussions and how did they say it?
- Which interrogatives (why, what, how, who) do they use when asking questions?
Shift 2: Know Your ‘Why’
Once you know to whom you’re presenting, identify why you’re presenting. Miss this shift and your audience won’t know where to focus their attention or what they’re supposed to do with your ideas. You must squarely fix your purpose in your mind before creating your presentation to best communicate your story.
Define the big idea in a complete sentence, which includes a subject (your audience) and a verb (action). When asked what your presentation is about, don’t say, “software updates.” Instead say, “Your department will struggle to meet key production deadlines until we update the workflow management software.” Also known as your elevator pitch, put the focus on what’s at stake.
When forming your purpose, consider:
- What is your audience’s current view or position on the topic?
- What is the audience’s experience with the subject?
- How does your idea benefit the group?
- What are the benefits to the audience’s individual spheres (peers, direct reports, followers)?
- How will people, both internally and externally, be affected?
Alternately, consider why you are presenting. What do you bring to the table that others don’t? Why is your executive asking you specifically to present? What is his or her pain point and how does it relate to other options, like hiring an outside subject-matter expert to present? If you’re not addressing your executive’s pain, your presentation is simply interesting. Your goal is to extrapolate and make your insights clear, so action is taken.
Shift 3: Know What Needs to Be Said
After articulating your purpose, brainstorm what needs to be said. Using a word cloud or sticky notes, quickly write down as many ideas as possible that explain what you want your executives to know, feel and do. Brainstorm alone, in a group, and alone again. Go for quantity, not quality. When brainstorming:
- Gather any existing content that is relevant to your idea
- Build on existing content by considering it from a new angle and challenging traditional thinking
- Create new content by experimenting and following your intuition
Next, choose three to seven of your best ideas. Any fewer and this could be addressed in an email or conversation; any more is too many for the average person to remember. As you choose your ideas, remember to tell your executives what they need to hear.
Continue building the presentation by fleshing out your three to seven ideas. Show your logic as simply and clearly as possible and include enough specifics to establish credibility. Explicitly state what you want your audience to do and by when (e.g., President John F. Kennedy’s bold aspiration to go to the moon in this decade). If your audience members remember nothing else, they should recall your three to seven ideas—and at least one of these points should indicate what you want your audience to know, feel and do.
Sentences now in hand, set aside uninterrupted time to write and produce your presentation as quickly as possible without stopping to edit. Begin by describing life as the audience knows it (what is), and then introduce your ideas (what could be). The gap between what is and what could be creates tension that needs to be resolved—an important characteristic of any good story.
As you introduce your ideas, move back and forth between what is and what could be to highlight the juxtaposition. Tell stories and metaphors to help listeners recall what they’ve heard from you and use sensory words to make an emotional connection. Stories add viscosity that makes information stick in people’s hearts and minds. Only presenting facts and figures leaves the audience to decide on its own how to process the information—and it’s hard to untangle a wrong conclusion.
A Few Words of Caution:
- Keep it simple; slides should have one header with two or three bullets
- Bullet points should contain a verb (action), object (subject), and adverb (timeframe)
- Don’t use too many stories or metaphors
- Use common, everyday comparisons that your audience will understand
- Tell stories that are unique, but not out of left field
Next, expand your stories around one of five basic plots:
- Origin: the present is understood by knowing the past. This creates an understanding of the present by reflecting on history.
- Rags to riches: the situation changes from bad to good. This evokes empathy and gets the audience to cheer for down-on-their-luck characters.
- Rebirth: a literal or figurative near-death situation that is the genesis of change. This evokes optimism to reverse a bad situation.
- Overcoming the monster: something bad or evil is eliminated. This induces righteous anger and compels people to ward something off.
- Quest: a seemingly unachievable goal is achieved. This provides hope and inspires problem-solving.
When telling your story or metaphor, include visuals such as video, photos, infographics, or charts. People recall only 10% of what is said after 72 hours. That rate increases to 65% when information is presented visually, according to Brain Rules author John Medina. But every visual element should have a function. If it doesn’t, remove it.
Shift 4: Know How to Say It or Show It
Presenting to leadership doesn’t have to be a great mystery. Yes, people communicate in a variety of ways, but there are common patterns people follow. Let’s focus on four patterns:
- Facts: logical, analytical, quantitative
- Form: organized, sequential, planned, detailed
- Feelings: interpersonal, kinesthetic, emotional
- Futures: holistic, intuitive, integrated, and synthesized
The way you prefer to communicate and learn may not be the way your audience prefers. As such, it’s important to communicate your ideas based on your audience’s preferences or you won’t keep people’s attention. This becomes increasingly important when presenting in group settings, as you’ll need to communicate to all preferences.
Set the Stage for Success
Seventy percent of strategies fail, and the No. 1 reason why is because they never captured the hearts and minds of their audiences, according to Nitin Nohria and Michael Beer in a Harvard Business Review article. Presentations are no different: They must capture the hearts and minds to influence change. This is accomplished by knowing your audience, defining the purpose of your presentation, supporting your purpose, and addressing your audience’s communication preferences.