Dylan is scheduled to make his first presentation to the sector executive with responsibility for his boss’ business. He’s excited and a bit worried. Though he spent a few years in consulting and did well at HBS, he realizes that as an operating manager he is now in a new environment where the stakes are higher. His sector executive (the Boss) has tens of thousands of people to manage, a global scope, and responsibility for a major portion of the firm’s profits. Needless to say, she is an incredibly busy and demanding executive who has a reputation as no-nonsense and results-oriented.
How should Dylan best prepare and deliver his presentation in this pressure packed environment? “Well,” he ponders, “My consulting work gave me plenty of experience in presentation craft. But what is different here? I’m no longer briefing mid-level managers who have the time and duty to grind through the details.” Good insight.
He considers the skills he had honed at HBS. He has confidence that he can handle the back and forth that would develop, provided he delivered a compelling message. But the question remains: “How can I best prepare that compelling message? Dylan recalls that one of his HBS professors began every case discussion asking about the case context: “What’s the weather? The terrain? The mood?” Dylan thinks about that. He needs to do some work to find out what the Boss already knows and thinks about his piece of the business. He has a pretty good idea what she and others believe the issues to be, but maybe he should confirm that with his direct boss. Also, how much time will she have for him? Who will be in the room and what are their attitudes, knowledge, and biases? Are there friends who might help? Who could be trouble? Does he enter the meeting with the sector and the firm in a good or bad place? And how does his business contribute to the firm’s overall results?
Dylan has made a very good start. Now let’s turn to content. Mark Twain once said “If I had more time I would have written you a shorter letter”. Words of wisdom in crafting a presentation to senior executives. Take the time to make the story as fact and logic based and clear and succinct as possible. Shorter with good backup is almost always better. Be able to answer in at most a few sentences the question, “What is the big idea, why do you believe it, and what are the implications for your business and the firm of your message today?” By the way, some senior executives have been known to ask that question before you get to the first slide, so be ready. Finally, each slide should make a point, you should know what it is and say it; and the points should link to form a coherent storyline. Charts and data can be helpful, but only if they are easy to read, clear, and make a point. Complex, overly illustrated or adorned charts get in the way and are often just fluff.
You should have deep, deep knowledge behind every slide, chart, or data set. Be able to go all the way down on each chart so there is no reasonable question you cannot answer. Expect probing, not entirely friendly and frequent questions as the Boss tests you and your depth of knowledge. One useful technique is to have a few easy to reach backup slides covering likely questions or areas of interest. A few ace of spades backup charts easily accessed trump the all too common large pile of security blankets so often trucked into the meeting that can generate a false sense of security but more often will provoke confusion. Know there will be some questions for which you do not have the answer. Guessing, fudging, or winging it can be fatal. “I will find out and get back to you” will serve you better.
Dylan takes this approach and has confidence that he understands the meeting context, and is prepared to explain and defend his story, but he takes one more smart step. Socializing. He meets with his direct boss to review his plan. He identifies a place where his boss can be helpful. Don’t ever surprise your direct boss. He even picks out a few key players (or their advisors) to brief. He checks in for advice from a colleague who has successfully presented to the Boss. A last check with his contacts in finance and HR, and he’s ready.
The big day arrives.. Dylan is calm and confident. He takes a breath, paces his speech, speaks with a clear voice, and listens carefully to comments and question. Dylan stays calm, even when someone takes an unfair jab. He resists the temptation to stall for thinking time with “that’s a good question.” (Don’t patronize the Boss!) He’s decides to skip his usual approach of adding a bit of humor. He is good at it, but he needs to understand the players a whole lot better before he adds his own personal charm. It’s all business today.
Before Dylan walked into the room he reviewed his last two slides, a summary and a post-meeting follow up plan. Implicit in each senior executive’s mind is the question “So what, what is next?” Answer both those questions before waiting to be asked. The last two slides should summarize your message, facts, and logic and outline the next steps, their degree of difficulty, and timing. Be clear what three messages you want the senior executive to take away and repeat them.
Dylan made his case. The Boss smiled as she walked out of the room thinking to herself,“This young manager knows his stuff, handles himself well under pressure, and has a bright future. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
You can do it too! Good luck.
Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the Fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He serves on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is on the Naval Academy Foundation and Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.