In 2006, I was part of a team that was presenting to VCs to raise money for our startup, and those meetings were some of the most stressful in my career.
I get nervous when I have to present in front of a group, and this is especially true when I’m speaking to really important listeners. When I was standing in front of these groups of potential investors, I was acutely aware of how important an opportunity this was and it made my anxiety even worse.
This feeling – the redoubling of pressure in an already stressful situation – was no doubt related to stereotype threat, a concept with which I am particularly familiar as an introvert; I get so nervous in social settings. Stereotype threat is, essentially, the stress a person feels that they may be reinforcing a negative stereotype about their own group, whether it be their gender, race, or something else. Psychologists who study stereotype threat have found that it can have a powerful impact on a person’s success; people who would normally perform well on certain tasks, when they are reminded of the stereotypes about their group, the stress causes them to suddenly underperform or confirm the negative stereotype.
Over the years I have certainly honed my skills at presenting. And I have had the chance to sit on the other side of the table and be the one taking in the presentation; and I’ve garnered a lot of tips and tricks on what it takes to get your message across.
So with that in mind, I’ve put together ten essential tips to keep in mind before you stand up, clear your throat, and begin your presentation.
1. Look the part.
Even if you work at a startup where jeans and a video game hoodie are acceptable attire day-to-day, it’s important to coordinate your look to match the level of importance of the meeting when presenting to others.
Your appearance sends subconscious (and conscious) messages to the people around you, including whether or not you’re someone they should take seriously. It may not seem fair that having a solid presentation isn’t the only thing that matters, but it’s worth pulling out a nice outfit to create the best possible representation of yourself and your ideas.
Consider the culture you’re presenting to and adjust your appearance accordingly. It makes a difference; don’t undermine all of your hard work by not putting effort into this part too. Looking put together shows that you take the opportunity seriously and reflects respect to the executives who have made time for you.
2. Be prepared.
For me, this one has always been the most important. Whenever I go into a presentation, I want to be able to answer any question whether it’s about the specifics of my proposal or about a loosely related article from the Wall Street Journal.
It’s not enough to have your notes well rehearsed and to have data from a few other competitors to cite. If you’re presenting to executives (such as in a board meeting), you better be prepared for them to know their stuff and want to ask you questions about it. They think at a high level about their business every day, so you need to take a similarly top-down approach when preparing your material.
- What is the long-term potential of this option over the status quo?
- What alternative solutions you could employ and what are the tradeoffs (cost, time, expertise)?
- Are there other companies employing your proposed strategy?
- Have there been any publications or recent news on the topic?
If you can, run your presentation by other leaders with whom you have a relationship to see what questions or problems they can think of. Not only is it good to rehearse with an audience, it’s even better when your practice audience has the same background and business as your real one. They may give you insight into a line of questioning you hadn’t thought through, giving you a chance to prepare a thoughtful answer ahead of time.
One of the greatest things I’ve learned how to tell a story. This means really understanding what is important to your audience. This means 2 things: knowing what is important to them (what is their background and objectives), and making your content understandable (speaking their language).
Initially when I started public speaking I was purely focused on filling the time, and trying to great a flow so I could remember what came next in my talk. Now I focus on structuring information in a way that is memorable and easy to digest for the audience.
I like to think about it like Hansel and Gretel and the breadcrumbs are morsels of information leading down a path. How do you make the important parts easy to remember? What framework can you put around the information? An example is when I did my Leveling Up talk – I crafted the information under 7 C’s. My goal was to put my lessons into seven buckets; making it easier to divide and conquer the content one piece at a time (and has the side effect of being easier to remember too!).
Another piece of advice given to me was:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
- Tell them.
- Then tell them what you’ve told them.
Laying out the important information upfront, and then recapping the key takeaways will help people retain and understand your message.
3. Be precise.
Executives don’t have a lot of time, and they don’t want to spend their time with you trying to decipher what you want or what your plan is. It’s not a good use of your time or theirs so make sure you are as specific as possible throughout your presentation.
If, after 10 minutes, your audience still isn’t sure what you want from them or why, you’ll likely have a frustrated group of people who are thinking about what else they could have been doing with this hour. Break your concept down into it’s simplest parts and be specific. A good guideline I like to use is:
- Start with a key message
- Address questions, or objections
- Recap the key message and give the audience a call to action
Presenting to executives can be extremely intimidating, especially your first few times in front of the conference room. A really common habit is to become really vague when asked a tough question, as a means of not saying anything wrong (by not saying anything in particular at all). The problem is – executives will see this as a waste of their time. If you aren’t sure, or don’t know an answer just make a note and promise to follow up. No one is expected to know everything all the time. Just don’t forget to follow up in timely fashion.
And be concise. Think in bullet points and always ask yourself if there’s a faster, more direct way to make the same argument. You’ll usually have precious little time to speak uninterrupted, so don’t waste those minutes on words that don’t help you get to the point.
Distilling your message down can be hard, and for me requires a lot of preparation and iteration. I was once told that it takes one hour for every minute of your presentation; and from my experience that seems to be true.
4. Make your introduction count.
You may get interrupted after five minutes, and you might not. Either way, the first few minutes of your presentation are likely to be the most important.
Executives are, as a rule, short on time. Brevity and directness are always appreciated, so make sure you outline your presentation (answer the who-what-where-when-why-how) at the top, and don’t expect to have 45 minutes to slowly build your case to a huge conclusion. Your audience needs to know where you’re headed so they can interpret your points appropriately.
Whenever I present I really practice my introduction. Up until this year whenever I would stand up to present my voice would quiver and I would be seating so profusely if you watch videos of my presentation you can see my wiping the sweat of my face! One of the ways I dealt with that anxiety was nailing my introduction. Then I get off to a solid start. Don’t skimp on your intro – hook your audience and give them a reason to listen to you from the start.
5. Tell a story.
It may be tempting to bring as many facts and figures as you possibly can to your presentation, but the truth is that dumping a bunch of data on your audience will have far less of an impact than presenting them with real-life scenarios and suggestions. It’s good to know the numbers behind your proposal, but they should supplement your argument, not replace it.
People will be more engaged if they have real scenarios to consider, and your plans seem more plausible when they’re rooted in reality. Start with the current state of affairs, then offer a peek at what could be. Then tell the executive team how you’ll get from here to there.
6. Hear it from their perspective.
This may seem obvious, but anyone who’s sat through a presentation knows how rarely presenters actually consider what their words sound like to the audience. Be the exception to this rule!
Before you present, you probably know why your proposal is such a good idea. But have you thought about what this particular CEO or that board of directors really cares about, and what will be convincing to them?
You need to consider their current role and, along with it, what fears, goals, and objectives motivate them. What’s their background? An effective presentation to a CFO will sound different than one for a VP of Engineering. Speak their language and you’ll be more likely to see them nodding along. The more you can tailor your presentation to be one that speaks to the desires and concerns of your audience, the more effective you will be.
7. Smarten your slides.
Any PowerPoint or Keynote slides you use during your presentation should be as backup to your speech only. Don’t use it as a way to remind yourself what points you want to hit – all those extra words and information will only serve to distract your audience. Instead, your slides should supplement what you’re saying by offering images, diagrams, and other easy-to-scan information.
Always plan for computer or projector problems and bring back ups of your slides (if it is small group, handouts for for every person in the meeting) that the group can reference.
If you can, it’s helpful to send out the slides in advance of the meeting as well. This gives your audience a chance to preview and prepare for your presentation, which means a more productive meeting since they’ll come in with a foundation of information. One thing I learned from my awesome boss and mentor, Mike, is to make it clear what slides are worth reviewing ahead of time. If you can highlight a couple the most important slides when you send them in advance, they’ll know the major areas of focus the discussion (and remember, executives like to be prepared).
8. Ask for action.
You wouldn’t be presenting to this group if you didn’t want something from them, so be sure you have clearly identified what results you would like to come from this meeting. What actions do you want them to take? Approve an idea? Give you feedback on your approach? Hire a consulting team? Fund your startup?
Don’t assume anything; your desires should be clearly stated so there’s no chance of misunderstanding.
In my opinion, it’s a good idea to let the executives know what it is you’re going to be asking from them upfront. As with a lot of these tips, the key is getting your message across quickly and efficiently, and this is the most important part of your whole presentation! In your introduction, let them know what key points you’ll be touching on, then tell them what you’re hoping their action will be.
It can be intimidating to directly ask your leadership to take action (since the roles are usually reversed), but in this case you need to be if you want your proposal implemented. Executives are direct, so you should be too.
9. Slow down.
As I mentioned earlier, I used to suffer major anxiety whenever I would walk into a board meeting, or step on stage – and the more important the meeting the more nervous I would get! However, one technique that was shared with me is to work with my biofeedback. Learning to be aware, and dive into the sensations in my body during those critical moments of nervousness. I try to focus on the feelings and even describe them in my head.. It’s almost by focusing on then it makes them less noticeable and puts me in control of my body. I become more aware, and it really works to calm me down.
Another technique that has really helped me is learning to slow down my speech. Try to pause a full half-second or second between each word. When I do this it feels so slow, and my mind races, but when I ask my conversation partner about the change in tempo most don’t notice a difference! Chances are many things are happening in your mind and you’re talking much faster than you realize. This technique allows me to think about what I’m about to say before I say it, and when I am presenting it helps to eliminate those annoying stop-words like um, uh and so. And when I saw something important, or ask a question to the audience, I will actually count 3 seconds in my head before proceeding for effect (thanks for the tip on that one Nicholas!).
If you focus on your breathing and really try to slow down it can help your nerves. I also try to take a few deep breaths and visualize my success before stepping in front of the audience. They want you to be successful after all!
10. Make them your friends.
Board meetings used to terrify me. However, over the last 6 years they become a regular part of my job – almost every month I’m expected to showcase engineering’s accomplishments and act as an evangelist for the technology side of the business. One of the best lessons that changed my outlook on board meetings was to stop seeing the board members as intimidating once-a-month visitors, to mentors and (in some cases) friends.
On the advice of a mentor, I made an effort to get to know these board members. I would always be early and do my best to create conversations with them about their backgrounds, other investments (or companies) they were involved in, or perhaps hobbies or current events. I genuinely wanted to know them as people. And once I got to know each one of them – it was like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t presenting to strangers judging me, but I was presenting to people who were my advocates and supporters.
If you can, find a way to get to know your audience ahead of your important meeting. This will help you be more successful and will generate more opportunities for you to showcase your progress and other awesomeness – not to mention what you can learn from these experienced and successful people.
As with almost everything, the more experience you get presenting to leadership teams, the easier it becomes. What tricks have you discovered to make presenting to executives easier and more productive?