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How to Talk to Senior Executives?

One of the unique aspects of my career is I regularly talk to senior executives.  At least a few times a month I present or pitch different ideas to executive management.  Conversely, I also present to the rank and file of my large corporation on a regular basis.  So how does talking to executives differ from talking to Joe from your department?

Defining Senior Executives

Before I get started I gather it might be important to define what I mean by Senior Executives.  I say this because in some conversations with others I have heard the level of a director defined as an executive.  In this particular case, I am talking to someone in the C suite.  That would be the CEO, CFO, CIO, etc.    That being said some of what I’ll speak about here applies to all levels within a corporation.

Know Your Audience

The first thing you learn in any class about presenting to people is to know your audience.    A successful presentation is tuned to your audience.  What is their level of comprehension on the subject, how much time do they have to listen to the details, how interested are they and how much they trust you?  All of these play into how you should present regardless of whom you are talking too.

Not All Senior Executives Can Understand Details

In terms of comprehension, Senior Executives are as varied as the general population.  Some of them know the topic like they did the operation themselves.  Others are so high level they don’t even understand what you do.    I have presented to both types.  

The Ease Of Presenting to the Generalist Senior Executives

The person with no knowledge whatsoever is, at least to me, the easiest of the two.  Any presentation is going to be light on details and heavy on results.    Most senior executives care only about 3 things: how much is it going to cost, how long will it take, and what will I get out of it.    That is especially true of the low comprehension executive.  You might even find cost and benefits can be vaguer for this individual.  Less is usually more for this person as any questions asked will likely just get them further off track.

The Complexities of Dealing with Expert Senior Executives

The harder of the two is the expert Senior Executive.    They tend to want to see the messy details.  The problem is there is still a balancing act between too much detail opening a door to questions.   Essentially the level of detail here needs to be tuned to the minimum possible while still meeting that executive’s tendency to dig in.  This amount differs by the executive.  See I told you this was the hard one.’

Add to that with either executive it is absolutely critical you know your stuff.    There is no easier way to deep-six your career than to answer an executive wrong.     Odds are high they will ask you questions off-script.  So study up beforehand.    However, also realize there is no way for you to know everything off the top of your head.  So practice this one line, you’ll use it a lot.  “I’ll have to get back to you on that one”.   Don’t ever wing an answer for an executive if you are not sure.

How Much Time Do They Have

Most executives are really busy individuals.   It’s not uncommon for the senior executives in my company to spend 12 hours a day in meetings.  The result is they don’t really have time to fully understand your presentation.   

See The Senior Executive Run

Think of an executive as a well-educated college student trying to multitask while playing a video game.    They are capable of complex thought, but with only half their brain paying attention you are just as likely for them to not understand the basics.  This is true regardless of comprehension level.

So basically in any real presentation to executives you need to design things like your talking to a 5-year-old. Essentially you need to spoon-feed them the answer.   The example I’ve always heard is the see spot run, run spot run level of explanation.    

I will note, the above gets me into trouble a bit in real life.   My wife often accuses me of mansplaining when I present topics to her.    She is easily way more intelligent than I am.  But it’s very hard to turn off once you get conditioned to this concept.    So anyone who ever talked to me and felt like I overly explained, don’t take it personally.  It’s my job and has no basis in my beliefs about your mental capability.

How Interested are they?

Let’s face it, not every meeting with an executive is going to be on something they care about.  Sometimes a meeting is about politics or something else.  Sometimes the decision is made before you even get started talking, but you have to go through the motions.   Knowing that level of interest beforehand can be of great help in determining how you go about it.  The less interest the more light on details you can be.    The more interested the more thorough.

Even if you don’t know their level of interest up front, you should watch senior executives during the talk for their level of interest.  Obvious cues to lack of interest include checking their watch or phone.  Obvious cues to more interest are more questions.  You can dial back or up your talk based on their actions. These queues may also help you to tailor your pitch on the fly to their values.

A question of Trust and Talking to Senior Executives

Which brings us to the monkey in the room.  This one sucks but it’s a reality.   The level the executive trusts you also determines how in-depth you need to go.   If they trust you implicitly they will likely ask you fewer questions and require less details.  However, if you have an acrimonious relationship with them prepare to be grilled.

Storytime, I tend to have the trust of most executives in my organization.   I once got pushed into a spur of the moment meeting on a half baked idea with one such senior executive.    This was a high comprehension executive with extreme interest.  IE.  He was the type to dig deep.

I was to present at the same time as someone else with a more thought out idea.  However, that person had no such rapport with the executive.  The result?   I essentially got out with minimal questions and follow-ups.  My poor counterpart was ripped to pieces before my eyes.  The other presenter was not ready for the level of questions off presentation and it all went downhill from there.

Now I will say, this is the part of the business world that kind of sucks.  It’s not what you know it’s whom.  This is where biases and discrimination also play.    The only thing I can recommend is to do your best to participate in work social functions.  Establish those relationships where possible.  In most cases making the effort to know the Executive outside of a meeting will grease the wheels of your presentations going forward.

Too Much Information On a Slide

The second thing you learn if you take a class on presentation is to not put too much information on a slide….  The works great in theory, and probably holds true in some businesses.  But in my experience, it’s complete claptrap in most technology-related businesses.    What you say?

Well, I can say that when you present to executives, other executives always want their say in what you are presenting.  Often times these executives will want to review what you will present to the next executive in the chain before it occurs. It’s a matter of politics you learn to expect.  And each one of these executives will want to tweak how and what you say.   You get to the point where you know each executives presenting style as well as the organization’s style.  So I can speak knowledgeably of what my company expects, what others in my company provide, and what people brought in from the outside do.

Slides as a White Paper, Some Places that is Just How It Works

The company I work for manages slides as something akin to a white paper.  Everything and anything goes on the slide.  The executive, if he or she is good, then reads the slide before coming to the meeting.  The better for them to pepper you with questions during the discussion.

Lest you think this is just the company I work for, I’ve seen the same thing in the 3 other companies where I have worked.    Basically every company I’ve worked for, every manager or executive that has come from another company as well.  

So before you take that fantastic “giving better presentations” class and start putting only 1 topic on a slide, take the time to explore what your organization’s presentational culture is.   Follow that, not what is taught.   Perhaps your organization will actually follow the “Best standard”, but if they don’t use it you don’t want to try and implement that standard.  You as the presenter are not going to change the company’s presentation culture and will be eaten alive if you try.  So it is in your best interest to conform.  

An Example From My Wife

Anyway, that is all I have for advice.  In writing this piece my wife gave me a great example from her everyday life.  My wife is an extremely specialized type of engineer.  When people ask what she does for a living there are two ways to answer the question.  The first is the true one and the second is the see spot run version. 

She is forced to give the see spot run version because 90 percent of the folks out there would not be able to follow (myself included).  But every so often she runs into someone who is knowledgable, has some time, and is interested.  It’s a rare situation for her.  But in that case the see spot run version can be misleading.  It’s hard for her to switch back to the true detailed version when that occurs in the same way it is hard for me to shut it off.    But if you want the other person to follow you have too.

Anyone else regularly present to senior executives?  Any tips I may have missed?

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