Careers advice: How to deliver great presentations to senior executives

27 July 2022

Knowing your audience is key to making persuasive business presentations but is an aspect we often overlook in favour of concentrating on our objective and how best to convey it. However, if you want to be successful in winning support for your ideas and creating a reputation for leading change in the workplace, it’s essential to know during presentations who are your most influential stakeholders, and what they want, in order to be able to tailor your presentation to appeal to their motivations and goals.

It’s well known that senior executives are a tough audience: they need to make big decisions and quickly, based on accurate information. There is plenty of advice available on giving presentations to these executives: keep it short, summarise your message at the start and end, give them only what they asked for, set a clear agenda, and rehearse until you know your presentation inside out.

However, presentation skills alone undervalue the emotional intelligence required to influence and persuade a senior executive audience, and how to appeal to the main concerns they are likely to have. The more you know about your executive audience, the more you can control your content, get their attention, and persuade them to adopt your message.

Caroline Egan, WBS Alumni Careers Manager, who practised as a Barrister for 15 years and delivers presentation skills training to MBA students, outlines her tips for knowing your senior executive audience, whether that’s virtual or face-to-face.

Know who will be in the room

  • Think about who will have the greatest influence on the adoption of your idea
  • Decide who are the most important people and tailor parts to each of their needs
  • Talk to them beforehand if possible; ask their advice, get them on board, and remember to never to raise a controversial issue for the first time at a meeting
  • Work out who are the key advisors or allies to the most influential people too. Even senior executives have people whose opinions they trust more than others. You need their support so find out who they are and think how best to appeal to their concerns.

Know why they are there

Knowing why your audience are there enables you to be more appealing and makes it easier to influence them, so you need to consider:

  • What is their job like on a day to day basis?
  • What do they want to know, or need to know?
  • What are their ‘pain points’ that you can solve with your proposal?
  • What do you want them to do or do differently as a result of your presentation?
  • How might they resist your ideas, and how do you overcome those obstacles?
  • What medium/media might best reach or appeal to them?

If you don’t know your audience already, do your research online or by talking to people who do know them.

Know what they want to hear

If you want to persuade your senior executive audience, your presentation needs to include information appropriate to their range of attitudes which can run the whole gamut from interest and curiosity, to resentment, distrust, and even hostility. Things to consider include:

  • What’s their perspective on this likely to be: what knowledge and biases do they bring?
  • Do your views coincide or differ and if so, by how much?
  • How will they gain or lose from your proposal or presentation?
  • Is this of special significance to them?
  • What do they stand to gain from this? Do they want to achieve something for themselves or others by being here?
  • If relevant – what do they think of you personally?

Read your audience

On the day:

  • Read the room and react: maintain good eye contact and watch the audience reaction and behaviour
  • Observe the senior executives’ body language and facial expressions. Glance at each person if possible to make sure they’re listening and understanding, but also that they are reacting positively to your proposal
  • Be prepared to be flexible and adapt. If they look confused, ask if they need you to explain something in more detail. If they aren’t ‘with you’, vary your pace and volume, or ask the audience a question
  • If they aren’t responding positively, be prepared for that: acknowledge any counter-arguments, minimise their relevance and explain how they can be overcome
  • Find out how your decision makers engage with material - people vary in how they react to and absorb information. Anticipate the arguments against you even if you don’t address them for good reason. Be prepared to concede a point when you need to but be prepared to stand your ground and push back when it counts, showing confidence in your views but the ability to be flexible
  • Plan for degrees of success and failure. You will have identified what you want to achieve from a meeting before walking in the door, but don’t just think of the outcome in terms of success or failure. Come armed with contingency plans for various scenarios: if it’s looking like you’re going to receive a ‘no’, you could suggest a scaled-back version of your proposal. Likewise, if it looks like your idea is going to be approved, be prepared to discuss ideas to build on your proposal, or ways to accelerate the timetable.

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