The art of making presentations to senior management

One of the most predictable ways for a manager to lose sleep and increase his blood pressure is to be invited to make a presentation to the senior management team. His mind typically fills with dread and all other priorities fade into the background as the day approaches.


Presentations to senior executives bring about that rising sense of panic for a good reason. Speaking to any group can be sweat producing but speaking to the people who have the power over your career can be downright nerve shattering.


For this reason, I’m often asked to coach up-and-coming managers in the art and science of presenting to senior management. Here are some tips:


  • Keep it short. Usually the agenda is packed, so if a discussion starts to run longer than anticipated (and it usually does), the rest of the agenda either gets shortened or cancelled altogether. Find out how much time you have been allotted and then only use three fourths, with the remaining fourth to be taken up with questions and discussion.


  • Start with an elevator speech. In other words, if you were riding an elevator with the CEO and he asked you what you were going to present today, how would you answer him in a few sentences?


  • Have a fall-back strategy if your time is shortened at the last minute. Don’t try to cram ten pounds of data into a five pound time slot. In other words, figure out in advance, what could be cut out of the presentation. Cut out the background and leave just the key points. If they want the background, you’ll be ready. If you feel that a shortened agenda just won’t be enough to clearly present your case, ask to remove it and ask to be invited to the next meeting.


  • Know the background detail but don’t structure your presentation chronologically, going through every little piece of the problem. They don’t have the time or patience for it. Instead, make the presentation with your audience in mind. For example, executives usually have these questions:


    1. What is the problem or issue?
    2. Why is it a problem?
    3. What have they done about it, so far?
    4. What does she recommend?
    5. What are the next steps and what decisions/actions does she want from me?


  • Use simple slides and graphs, without clutter and excessive detail. If you must illustrate a point within a large body of data, highlight it and then on your next slide, isolate it and use an enlarged close up of only those few numbers.


  • Describe what each technical chart is before diving into a number. For instance, “This chart shows the relationship between last year’s results against the results of the prior four years.” Often, presenters know their own information so well, they dive in, forgetting the rest of the audience is still trying to figure out what the big picture is.


  • Use language that is conversational—skip the jargon and acronyms. You may use the jargon in your department, but the executives don’t all work in your department and may not want to admit they don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.


  • Use pictures, examples and stories to make the information come alive. Endless presentations of numbers and graphs are numbing. Sometimes executives are so removed from the day-to-day, they lose perspective. For example, rather than just showing data about quality improvements, show before and after photographs of a product.


  • On a sensitive or controversial topic, visit with audience members one-on-one to get understanding and buy in prior to your presentation. If you don’t take this precautionary step, you may find yourself trying to manage a heated or confused audience.


  • Talk about what is going right, not just about what is going wrong. At the executive level, presentations tend to focus on what’s broken and what needs to be done about it. It can be dreary and stressful. Be sure to include successes and encouraging progress. It can indeed be lonely—and sometimes depressing—at the top.


  • Be prepared to answer tough, challenging questions. Over the years, I’ve participated in many senior executive presentations and one thing seems standard—they love to poke holes. Sometimes they even try to outdo each other. Because they are removed from the details, they need to question and probe to understand the topic quickly, so they can make a decision. Don’t be caught without facts and a solid approach to a problem, or your career could take a few lumps.


  • Be specific about the risks and the anticipated problems related to an issue. The more honest you are the more credibility you will have.


Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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