Organisations are filled with professionals like you, who in most cases, know more about what they are doing than their managers and executives. They’ve spent years honing their craft, accumulating valuable knowledge, and reimagining the future. Their ideas could massively benefit the organisation. Unfortunately, those ideas are often not expressed to senior management
Why? Because these professionals are rarely prepared to step in front of decision-makers to present a compelling case. Organisations have invested little on training them to present ideas effectively to senior leaders, depriving them of the ability to make a significant, positive difference to the future of their company.
In this blog post, we offer powerful tips for every professional who wants to present to senior leaders. But before we dive into those, there’s one crucial mindset shift that we’ll need to talk about first.
The right mindset
Let’s face it: Most ideas that are put in front of senior leaders get rejected. That doesn’t always mean that the ideas were bad, just that the leaders were not convinced that they are worth the effort. Unfortunately, many presenters don’t recognise this simple truth. They complain that the leaders didn’t understand the brilliant idea and its implications. As you can imagine, this mindset isn’t very helpful.
Here’s a different way of looking at the situation. When you are presenting ideas to decision-makers, be aware that it is your responsibility to sell the idea, not their responsibility to buy. Influencing senior management is similar to selling to external customers. They aren’t obliged to buy; you have to sell.
To make this shift, realise that a key part of the influence process involves educating the decision-makers. Effective presenters are good teachers. To quote Peter Drucker, “The person of knowledge has always been expected to take responsibility for being understood. It is barbarian arrogance to assume that the layman can or should make the effort to understand the specialist.” So how do you educate and influence decision-makers?
6 key tips for presenting to senior management
Follow our six tips, and you’ll be well-prepared for senior leaders and the boardroom.
1. Structure your presentation
How do you usually present an argument or an idea? It is very common for professionals to list lots of points before coming to the crux of the matter. This is called the induction process – good for scientific presentations but ineffective for presentations to senior management because the audience needs to listen to the full presentation before they can understand the main message. Unfortunately, this is not an effective way, and certainly not very efficient, either.
By detailing the work that was done and explaining the process that was followed, presenters risk losing the attention of senior management fast. Most leaders care more about the big picture than the details. If they are really interested in the specifics, they will ask for them.
An alternative way of presenting ideas is the Pyramid Principle, and we’ve dedicated a whole blog post to explaining it and outlining why it’s effective. The gist is that the Pyramid Principle follows a top-down structure. You start by stating your main idea, answer, or recommendation, mirroring the way leaders think. By providing the big picture first, you immediately grab and hold their attention. Then, you follow up with supporting arguments, organised in groups of 3 – 5 items.
This style of communication is very powerful and makes you look assertive and confident. Busy senior executives will appreciate the clarity and efficiency in the delivery and can’t help but notice that you’ve evidently thought your arguments through.
2. Set expectations and stay flexible
Senior leaders are busy people. They attend multiple meetings per day with different topics, often having to rush from one to the next. Your counterparts might not be immediately aware of what your presentation is about, and they likely didn’t have time to review any information yet. You can use this to your advantage. Make a strong first impression by stating clearly why they are here and why your topic is important for them and the whole organisation.
Let them know that you’ll spend the first few minutes presenting the summary and your recommendation, followed by sufficient time for questions and discussion. This way, even the most impatient decision-maker will likely let you go through your main points without interruption.
Still, be prepared to be interrupted and stay flexible. Don’t insist on going through all of your slides, but cover what seems to be their main points of interests. If a slide is dismissed easily, take it as a compliment that you were able to get the point across quickly.
3. Focus on the benefit for the whole organisation and its customers
Let’s go back to the mindset that you are selling an idea. Great salespeople would never say to a customer, “You need to buy this product, otherwise I won’t achieve my target.” Instead, they relate to the needs of their buyers.
In the same way, professionals who are looking to persuade senior management will need to relate to the larger needs of the organisation, not just to their own or their team’s needs. In theory, your team’s goals should correlate with the organisation’s overall goals. But you can’t assume that senior leaders will instantly see the connection between the benefits of your idea for you and the benefits for the larger corporation.
Remember that your main goal is to make a positive difference for the organisation. It should be absolutely clear in your presentation, what that big benefit is. The more people you can “win” with your proposal, the more likely that your idea will be successfully executed.
4. Present a realistic cost-benefit analysis
Your organisation has limited resources, time, and energy. By accepting your idea, management might have to reject another one that someone else believes in. So, get ready to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea and prepare for any objections that might come up.
It can help to acknowledge the sacrifice that someone else may have to make and point out how the benefits of your proposal outweigh the costs. If you can, clearly show the expected Return-on-Investment (ROI) for the organisation. That’s the language decision-makers understand.
5. Be prepared to answer questions
Even though your initial presentation went great, you are not done yet. Senior leaders are experts at finding holes in your logic. They don’t do this to humiliate you. They just want to be sure that all consequences and implications have been considered, and that they can trust your analysis and recommendations.
You can be one step ahead by anticipating potential questions upfront and preparing your responses. Here are common questions that you should always be ready to answer:
How can we get this done more quickly?
Senior leaders typically want to see the value for the organisation as quickly as possible. Think about what you would need to execute your plan two to three times faster. You might also want to explain any factors that would mitigate the speed of implementation.
What do you need from us?
When you hear this question, the executives are most likely already on board. Now, they’ll want to know exactly what you’ll need to bring your idea to life, in terms of resources, budget, and participation from others.
What happens if we do nothing?
Senior managers are often bombarded with proposals but have a finite amount of resources to allocate to new initiatives. Naturally, they’ll want to focus their energy on projects that will drive the most impact. Think about the consequences of not pursuing your idea at all.
How will the competition react?
Your organisation is not acting in a vacuum. Competitors will likely watch every outward-facing initiative. It is good practice to spend some time thinking about any second-tier effects that your idea might have.
What assumptions did you make?
It’s likely that you didn’t have complete information when you prepared your proposal and consequently needed to make some assumptions. Now, think about how changing these assumptions even slightly would impact your conclusion.
How will this help our customers?
Even if your proposal focuses on internal operations, think through how your idea will ultimately impact the end customer. There’s always a connection. Your customers are the critical stakeholders that will help your organisation to succeed. By addressing how they’ll benefit, you demonstrate strategic clarity.
6. Rehearse and get honest feedback
A lack of preparation is still the number one mistake that’s also the easiest to avoid. The opportunity to present to senior management doesn’t happen every day, and you’ll want to be sure that you can seize the moment. Run your presentation and your slides by a colleague who can provide you with honest feedback. Ideally, he or she had success already in getting ideas accepted by executives.
When you rehearse, ask for specific feedback:
- Is your message coming across clearly and quickly?
- Do your main slides contain the key insights and are easy to read?
- Are you missing any points that your audience is likely to expect?
Support the final decision
So, you have prepared your presentation diligently. You have rehearsed it rigorously. You deliver it with confidence and answer all questions. That’s really all you can do. Now, it’s up to senior management to make their decision. They might run with your plan or prefer another course of action. Assuming that the final decision is not unethical or immoral, you’ll always have to try to make it work.
Professionals who say, “They told me to tell you…” to their team and co-workers are perceived as messengers, not leaders. If you show a lack of commitment to the final decision, you might sabotage the chances for effective execution. Even if the decision is not to your liking, avoid going behind your boss’s back in front of your direct reports. Otherwise, you’ll teach them what to do when they disagree with you.
Where to go from here
You now know six powerful tips for preparing your next presentation to senior management and how to get into the right mindset. Do you know someone who is currently preparing for a high-stakes presentation? Help them out and share this blog post with them!
If you would like to take your presentation skills to the next level and feel more confident when you walk into the boardroom, then we have something for you. Imagine, you and other professionals in your organisation could learn how to:
- Analyse your audience and use this information to frame your proposals
- Build multi-layered arguments for your case and test them for flaws and loopholes
- Justify your case with any of our justification tools
- Anticipate and confidently handle questions about facts and/or opinions
- Rehearse effectively and in a way that builds your confidence
This and more is part of our The Case Maker™ Advanced programme that’s designed for professionals who need advanced techniques for high-stakes proposals and complex situations. Contact us to find out if this is right for you.