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How to survive presenting to senior management and the board of directors.
By Alison Davis
It was the big day. After six weeks of research, planning, and preparation, my client and I were ready to present to the senior management team. Our topic: how best to implement a major initiative aimed at making the company, a Fortune 500 behemoth, more nimble and efficient.
We were scheduled to appear at 1:30 p.m., so we stopped for a quick lunch at the cafeteria. On our way out, I had a question for my client. “Do they serve water, or should we buy our own?” I said.
She laughed. “Water?” she asked derisively. “Why would they serve water when they’re going to roast you on a spit?”
Gulp. I escaped that meeting without being flame-broiled, but it was a close call. There’s a reason—many reasons—why presenting to the CEO, the senior management team, and the board of directors is the communication challenge that causes professionals the most angst. In thirty-plus years working in and around corporations, I’ve seen powerful leaders sleepless with anxiety and trembling with fear when preparing to face the judgment of the boardroom. (One VP of manufacturing confessed to me over drinks the night before a big pitch: “I’d rather stand before an unruly horde of reporters—or a firing squad, for that matter—than present to the executive leadership team. These guys are tough as nails. You have to know the answer to every question, or they’ll tear you apart.”)
Are the senior team and the board really that daunting? It’s true that they’re smart. They’re certainly sophisticated. And there’s no doubt that they’re driven—they didn’t claw their way to the top of the heap by being shy and retiring.
But presenting to senior management doesn’t have to be fraught with terror. You can pitch your proposal and emerge not only unscathed but glowing. How? By employing a strategy of persuasive jujitsu. The idea is this: The more you understand how executives think—what they want to achieve and what they worry about—the better you can meet their needs and accomplish your objectives.
And the best way to make your next command performance more, well, commanding is to take on the key mistakes that people make.
Most people’s first mistake is entirely avoidable: overwhelming their pitch with too much information.
“I’ve sat in way too many meetings characterized by machine- gun-fire-like bursts of facts,” says Christopher J. Frank, VP of business-to-business and communications research at American Express and co-author of Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making Smarter Decisions Without Drowning in Information. “The colloquial term for this approach is ‘spray and pray.’ The presenter sprays every number or factoid he or she can find and then prays that something will stick.”
Of the many reasons why this is a bad idea, here are three: You have a limited amount of time to make your case, so you can’t squander it by wallowing in data. Senior executives have notoriously short attention spans, so you need to get to your point as fast as possible. And third—this one may surprise you—the more facts you present, the less smart you look.
“You need to remember why you’ve been invited to the boardroom,” Frank explains. “You’re there because you’re an expert in something: engineering, IT, marketing, supply chain. As an expert, your job is not to regurgitate data—it’s to analyze information and, based on those insights, provide your recommendations. As a result, you should be able to summarize all the data in one or two slides.”
Of course, you need to have a thorough understanding of the data your pitch is based on, and be ready to answer questions about it. Just don’t display all of it. Don’t use data as a presentation crutch or include slides of information just “because I worked so hard to get it.” Data should be used as background—it’s not the star of the show.
Needs and Expectations
Bill was frantic. His boss—the CFO—had just told Bill that, in ten days, he needed to make a presentation to the executive team about his cost-cutting initiative. “There’s no way I can be ready in time,” Bill groaned. “I’ve got to gather the data, run the projections, design the slides—it’s just too much!”
Attempting to calm him down, I interrupted. “What is the purpose of your presentation?” I asked. “In other words, what does the CFO expect? What are his objectives? What will success look like?”
Bill’s tirade sputtered to a stop. “Actually, I don’t know,” he admitted. “I just assumed my boss wants me to give a comprehensive report on the initiative. I never asked him what the focus should be.”
Understanding senior leaders’ expectations is key. If Bill had not asked, he would have spent dozens of hours on a presentation that would have fallen flat. What he learned was that the CFO wanted to address only two issues: when the cost-cutting plan would take effect and how much money could be expected to be saved this year.
“We too often make assumptions about what the bosses want to know,” Frank says. “Sometimes, it’s because we don’t have direct access, and it may require some effort to find out. But more often, we just plunge ahead without checking. After seeing this mistake too many times, now every time I need to present to a member of senior management, I send a short email about a week in advance with a simple question: ‘What do you most want to know about the topic I’m presenting?’ It’s amazing how well this technique works.”
For Valerie Di Maria, a C-level consultant and former CMO and chief communication officer at companies such as GE Capital, Motorola, and Willis, one of the biggest mistakes a presenter can make is failing to “pre-sell” a proposal to key members of the executive team. “In a perfect world,” she says, “the benefits of what you’re proposing would be so blindingly obvious that your pitch would be embraced by the entire executive team on the strength of its merits. But, especially at the top, organizations are complicated. Each senior manager has his or her own agenda. Each worries about different issues: complexity, cost, focus, strategy—you name it.”
If you walk into the boardroom cold, without testing your concept with individual members, you run the risk of encountering what I call scattering-ducks syndrome. One executive gets nervous, another picks up on the anxiety, a third starts quacking, and, in a flash, the whole flock takes to the sky in a collective panic. And there you are, clutching your sodden proposal (wet from all the splashing), being asked to “come back when you’ve given this further study.” To mix metaphors, that’s the kiss of death.
Arrange informal chats with at least a few supportive executives before the meeting. Your sponsor should certainly be first on your list, but think about whom else it would be politic to enlist. One brave VP I know routinely approaches the CIO because he’s known to be a “cranky bastard”: Since he resembles Mikey from the old Life cereal commercial (“He hates everything!”), if she can get him on board, everyone else will want to eat the breakfast.
Too Much Power, Not Enough Point
It’s the biggest meeting of the year—maybe even your career—so of course you’re going to spend weeks getting ready for it. How, then, it possible to under-rehearse? Simple, says Di Maria: People put all their energy into creating and fine-tuning their PowerPoint slides, spending too little time practicing for the actual “performance.” Sufficient rehearsal means working through:
Who will present and how. Will every part of the session be based on slides, or will other methods be used as well? How will transitions be handled?
How to field questions. You should come up with the toughest questions that might possibly come up, draft answers, and assign which team member will answer them.
What to do if the presentation is derailed. “You go in thinking you have thirty minutes to make your pitch,” Di Maria says. “But then another session before you runs long, or another issue comes, and before you know it, the CEO is telling you that you’ve only got ten minutes. You’d better be ready with a game plan for scenarios like that. ”
And don’t be surprised, says Di Maria, if executives cut your pitch short. “Once leaders say, ‘Got it,’ that’s your signal to move on. I have seen so many presentations go badly because people stick to their scripts and don’t go with the flow. Remember that you are not in control. You have to go where executives want to go.”
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