Executive Presentations: A Guide to Achieving the Outcomes You Want
Focus on the outcome and audience, not what you want to say
Learning to present to executives is a critical part of career growth and success. Your ability to articulate what you and your team do, and how that aligns with the long-term mission and goals of your company, can mean the difference between support and resources and the depreciation of your product or team.
I have been on both sides of the table, as a presenter and an executive. I started out in consulting at Boston Consulting Group, where I learned to craft presentations that were shared with senior executives and boards. I spent time in Corporate Strategy, where I worked on strategies and decks for the CEO of PayPal. I have pitched dozens of products, from PayPal Integration with eBay to Games, Facebook Credits, and Facebook Marketplace. I also helped to craft the Ancestry new vision and strategy for our board. On the executive side, I have sat through hundreds of presentations in my operating roles, during my time in board service, and now as the CEO of Ancestry.
This is a compilation of the best practices for any team preparing for an executive review.
Know the purpose of your meeting
If you don’t know what outcome you’re looking for, you will likely leave dissatisfied with the outcome you get.
Here are a few ways of categorizing your meeting.
Decision-making meeting: The goal of a decision-making meeting is to make the final call during the discussion (or, if necessary, shortly thereafter). It is critical that you frame each question in the context of the following:
Stakeholders’ opinions on those options
The pros and cons weighed against the decision criteria
Brainstorming meeting: Early in product development or idea generation, some executives will host brainstorming meetings to get initial ideas on the table. This is also often done for new innovation and areas of exploration.
Resource ask meeting: Amazon has a well-known type of six-pager meeting dedicated to requesting resources for a specific product. Other companies have periods where new ideas or incremental asks are entertained during budgeting time.
Approval meeting: These meetings are often considered “green light” meetings, where a product or initiative is ready to ship and the team is requesting final approval to proceed. Prepare with a press release, positioning statement, and rollout plans.
Update meeting: Ask yourself before having an update meeting, “Could this have been an email?” Many executive update meetings are more for the team than the executives, so if you are invited to a meeting of this type, ensure that you leverage it to ask your questions and garner support.
Write a quality pre-read
Pre-reads ensure that the content has a separate space from the conversation, benefitting both.
Pre-reads give those attending the meeting the chance to get context and ask questions ahead of time. The best practice is to send the pre-read at least 24 hours before the meeting. It is challenging in a live 30- to 60-minute meeting to both set context and discuss key points. Focus the education portion on the pre-read and use your time in the room for a guided discussion. The pre-read should stand on its own without additional live commentary, and it should clearly list out everything that will be discussed during the meeting.
Provide context, context, context
You are the only one who knows what is in your head. Everyone else needs context.
Most executives do not have detailed knowledge of what your team does. They are likely to run dozens of different products or teams. They are also constantly switching from one topic to another throughout the day. The teams that have the best executive presentations start with clear context, especially in the pre-read.
Several years ago, we presented an idea for a new payments product. We started with a Payments 101 primer explaining the key players in the industry. This included what role the merchant, gateway, acquiring bank, card network, and issuing banks play, and how the $.30 + 2.9% transaction fee was broken down by player. We then went on to explain what role we wanted to play in the ecosystem. The conversation was richer because we started with clear context, even if it was basic for some of the people in the room.
Speak to your audience
Don't focus on what you want to say. Focus on what you want your audience to take away.
Most teams start with what they want to talk about, and not the outcome they want. If you are asking for resources, focus on how your work ladders up to the goals of the organization. If you are giving an update, focus on the key points you want to get across and any things you need to flag.
Tailor your communication to those in the audience. Help them understand your focus, your priorities, and your impact, rather than giving a superficial recounting of what you are working on. Talk about things in the context of the company’s mission, the executive team’s goals, and how the work you do helps with one or both.
Think about how many levels the audience is away from where you and your team are. For every layer of management, reduce the detail by one level. The more removed your audience is from the work, the less detail they will understand or be able to weigh in on.
Use narrative storytelling
Few people remember the statistics. Nearly everyone remembers the story.
Your presentation should have a clear story arc. Start with the narrative outline and ensure you have a story that gets your point across. Focus on leveraging stats and data to support your narrative, rather than the other way around. The story should stand on its own, and it should be readable and comprehensible to someone who is not close to the details of your work.
I was the PM of a team that delivered straightforward executive updates that were factual recounting of how things were going, metrics, roadmaps, and progress. While these were adequate, they didn’t garner much feedback. I later took on another area and switched to narrative storytelling since we didn’t yet have product-market fit and little to no data. The executives engaged actively, and I heard the stories retold both internally and eventually externally. Both products were equally successful in their time, but the latter became part of company lore, and the former has largely been forgotten.
Focus on comprehension over comprehensiveness
Don’t aim to explain everything. Focus on making sure the right things land.
I've seen some teams go for the “kitchen sink” presentation style. They put every detail in a hundred-page PowerPoint, making it impossible to have a focused conversation. Rarely are leaders impressed by the breadth of a presentation. Instead, they want clear thinking that will help them make decisions.
Once, after a day of product reviews with several teams, one executive said, “The teams are bringing in 20-page Word documents for their products. We have a dozen of these reviews a week, and we are reading entire novels at this rate.”
When we had mid-cycle product reviews, we limited each team to two written pages. The end of half product lookbacks and roadmaps were limited to four pages. Ironically, the Product Managers chafed against these restrictions the most. As one said, “It is easier to write ten pages than it is to write four.” Though being concise is more challenging than including more, it made for richer and more focused conversations.
Be truthful and transparent
Focus on full transparency - on both good points and bad points - so that you can build a culture of trust. Shading in favor of the positive will erode trust in the rest of your presentation.
Hiding bad news is never a good strategy. Companies where teams are constantly speaking only about good news risk running into “Emperor's New Clothes” syndrome. Sharing what is working well in addition to what is not working well ensures that you are giving a transparent and clear assessment of where you are. That way, you can ask for help in the areas where there are gaps.
In addition, truth-telling innoculates you when something goes wrong. If you are constantly selling the idea of a blowout success and then falling short, you risk losing the confidence of the leaders.
We are often intimidated by executive meetings, but armed with the right preparation, you can leverage them to help your team and company. The key is to focus on the outcome you hope to achieve and work back from there. Clear communication, focus, and purpose will drive the discussion forward, and the rest will take care of itself.