Into the lion’s den: What to know when presenting to the C-Suite

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7 April 2022
Written by Speak First Linked-in icon

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Presenting to C-Suite audiences – CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CMOs and every other type of Chief Officer – can be daunting. In many respects, they’re just like any other audience, and all the usual tricks and skills for managing attention, informing, engaging and building rapport are still true and relevant. And yet, they’re busy and important people. Their role is to make decisions that add value to their organisations and they’re looking for information that helps them run their business successfully. In this case, you’re the one that’s tasked with giving them that information.

This means that when you’re given the chance to present to them, your points have to be as clear, provable and convincing as ever, and your delivery needs to be strong and powerful.

That pressure can make many people quite nervous. They fluster and make mistakes, over think their content and lose focus on what they’re really there to say. To avoid these issues and to help you give your best presentation, pitch, report or update, we’ve got some simple but powerful tips to follow.

 

1. Understand their role and yours

The C-Suite can house a diverse array of responsibilities, but all share the overall goal of developing strategy and providing direction for their organisation. They ultimately answer to their shareholders, who hold them responsible for leading the company and making decisions which bring success.

When presenting to a C-level audience, your role is to provide them with the information they need to make those decisions. Whether it’s through proposing new ideas, reporting research findings or pitching your product – you’re there for their benefit. Keep this in mind when creating and delivering your presentation.

 

2. Provide them with value

When preparing your presentation, your mantra needs to be, “What’s in it for them?” Without this central focus, there’s no point in you walking into the room. Your presentation should be structured with each key point clearly signposted and explained why it’s useful to the audience.

Your presentation’s opening should act as an executive summary. This lays out the groundwork and lets your audience know what to expect. For example, “I’m going to show you our second quarter sales figures, which were higher than expected. We’ll then look at which factors contributed to this, and what we can learn going into the second half of the year to continue our high levels of growth.”

This short introduction lays out precisely why your busy audience should listen and what they’re going to get out of it. With good and relevant content, you don’t need to rely on big reveals and surprises. Let the facts and data speak for themselves.

Additionally, after every key point, include a one or two sentence recap to reiterate its importance and value for your audience. This keeps things clear and unambiguous, while managing their attention. Whether you’re pitching a new idea, selling a product, reporting information or providing a regular update, they need to understand why listening to you is important.

 

3. Focus on the details

Preparation is the secret ingredient that turns a good presentation into a great one. Researching information, creating your slides and rehearsing the delivery all require time and effort. But this isn’t just your typical presentation or your average audience. Treat this as your one chance to impress them, because it very well might be.

Don’t waste time with too much waffle or unnecessary background details. Get straight to the point and back everything up with real data, for example: the costs of doing something new, expected return on investments, timelines, reactions of key stakeholders and so on. These are absolutely vital when presenting to C-level executives, and they’ll be expecting to hear them.

Then keep building on this by definitively stating the difference your information makes for the organisation – such as ways to increase productivity or cut costs, understanding potential new markets or even just able to confidently decide to continue on as things are.

 

4. Know your stuff

When preparing your presentation, consider exactly who your audience will be and their specific position and responsibility within the organisation. This will give you some clues for what they’ll be listening out for. It’s a pretty safe assumption that a Chief Financial Officer is going to want to hear about financial issues, while the Chief Operating Officer will want to hear the practical logistics of a plan.

High ranking execs are experienced and discerning enough to recognise when you’ve overlooked something, and are confident enough to call you out on it. Don’t view this as them trying to trip you up, but rather a helping hand. If your points have interested them, they’re giving you the opportunity to say more; if they aren’t so interested yet, this is a chance to provide more information to convince them.

Be ready for questions. They may wait until the end, or there might be interruptions in the middle of your presentation. During your preparation, try to pre-empt potential questions. Are there any gaps or ambiguity in the data? Are there any interesting jumping off points that someone may want to explore further? What are the opposing opinions and what’s your rebuttal? If the whole thing turns into a conversation be ready to land your key messages as part of the discussion. This is often a sign that this type of audience is fully engaged.

This all means it’s not enough to just learn a script, you need to understand the subject. However, the golden rule is to never lie or make up an answer if you don’t know. They’ll respect you much more if you admit you aren’t sure or don’t have the information to hand than if you undermine yourself when they discover you got it wrong.

 

5. Create a strong presentation

Regardless of the laser-focus on data and details, it doesn’t change the fact that the core presentation still needs to be good. Your structure, slides and performance need to be top notch. Give these the time they deserve.

Every good presentation should have a narrative – a story that takes your audience from Point A to Point B clearly and succinctly. Even when presenting pure data, there’s a three-act story about how the data was collected, what it tells you and how to act on it.

Treat each point as its own little section, with each section containing one key point, evidence to back it up and a link back to reinforce your overall message. Keep it streamlined and focused, without bloating it out unnecessarily. Including too much is just as much of an error as including too little. Make everything that goes in important and useful.

 

6. Present with confidence

We often associate looking and sounding confident with a person’s competence, making it crucial to deliver a strong performance when presenting. If you give the impression of doubting something you’re saying, you’ll make everyone else doubt it too. This isn’t enough to counteract gaps in your content, but small changes to your physical and vocal performance can make a powerful difference to how people perceive and internalise what you say.

Speak clearly, adopt a measured pace, and deliver your message with authority and belief in yourself and what you’re there to say. Stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart, elbows to your side and your arms out front. Make yourself look big, rather than hunched away and hiding.

Rehearse your presentation and try to get it as good as you can, but don’t get bogged down in perfectionism. It’s not about giving the best presentation of your life, it’s about delivering a message to your audience.

Additionally, based on the way C-level execs are required to work and think, don’t be caught off guard if the presentation is forced to change on the spot. Whether it’s the aforementioned difficult questions that lead to discussing a different topic or whether the whole thing morphs into a discussion rather than a presentation. Act confidently, as though you really belong among that group of people. Confidence is key.

 

7. Understand where and when decisions are made

After your presentation, you might be hoping for an immediate and resounding “Yes” to the plan you just pitched or the product you demonstrated. In reality, this is very rare. It’s much more likely that the executives in the room will take their time to discuss it among themselves. You may not be the only person they’re hearing from, so they’ll need to consider everything they’ve heard. Don’t be disappointed or disheartened by this, it’s just how the process works.

A useful skill is recognising that the decision-making process doesn’t start or end with your presentation, and you should be willing to engage with the decision-makers at all points.

If you’re able, talk to members of your upcoming audience before the presentation. This gives you an opportunity to start lobbying, discussing their initial thoughts, and finding out if they’ve got any worries or questions you’ll need to answer in your presentation. A one-to-one conversation lets you begin swaying their opinions and can often bear more fruit than a stand-alone presentation. You may even gain advocates in the room for when it’s time to present.

After the presentation, try to find time to approach members of the C-Suite to ask for their feedback. This lets you hear what they thought and whether they still have any unanswered questions. Of course, they may not always be able to say, but it keeps the conversation going. The presentation is important and central, but it’s not the only tool in your arsenal.

 

Presenting to the C-Suite may initially spark nerves and a desperate need to be absolutely perfect, but our steps let you begin planning your presentation with confidence. By carefully considering your content, delivering a strong performance, and understanding your audience and their needs, you’ll wow your executives and provide them with real value every time.

 

For more tips to improve your Presentation Skills, take a look at our Learning Solutions.