Today we're going to talk about a critical skill that every senior technical leader must have: delivering impactful presentations. We've all been there, sitting through a presentation that seems to drag on and on, waiting for the speaker to get to the point. Unfortunately, this is a common trap many of us fall into when speaking to senior leadership teams, but the good news is that it's easily avoidable.
Whether you're pitching an idea, presenting a proposal, or seeking buy-in from stakeholders, your ability to persuade and engage your audience can make all the difference in achieving your goals. In this article, I'll share some tips for delivering concise, engaging, and effective presentations. So, let's dive in!
Let's start by focusing on the most common mistake that people make: "building up to the grand finale" at the end of the presentation.
What I mean by this is withholding the decision, outcome, or result you want from the stakeholder group until the very end of your presentation.
This is the "meat" of your presentation, the thing from which you want buy-in from this stakeholder group. We can call this "the desired outcome" — what are you wanting to get out of this presentation? For what purpose are you even doing this presentation? Why is everyone here?
"Building up the grand finale" might seem like a good idea at first, but it's actually counterproductive. Your audience is busy, and they have limited time to engage with your ideas. By making them wait until the end of your presentation to hear your most important points, you risk losing their attention before you get to the good stuff.
Once stakeholders have tuned out, getting your desired outcome is very difficult. C-Level executives are very easy to lose if you don't capture their attention and get to the point quickly. They may be present in the room, but their mind wanders elsewhere to any number of big challenges they currently have on their plate.
So why do people fall into this trap?
One reason is that they don't think about their desired outcome from their presentation first. Your goal is not to speak; it's to get the outcome you want. If you can get that in five minutes of speaking, that's great! You don't need to speak any longer than necessary.
Another reason people fall into this trap is that they think they need to take people on a similar journey they have taken to obtain some knowledge or insight. They believe that it builds respect to show other people how meticulous they've been before making their "desired outcome" known. However, the entire time your stakeholders know you're going to ask them for something, making them impatient.
The third reason is that they go into the meeting with the mindset of a convincer or beggar rather than a facilitator. The facilitator leads the group in discussion rather than droning on at the group. You can't be a facilitator if you don't have people's attention and they don't quickly know what outcome, decision, or result you are looking for. The facilitator is confident and authentic because they've done the work but don't feel the need to "show" it. They are not trying to show people how "smart" they are.
Finally, people don't think about how they are going to present. They read off their slides rather than hitting key points, speaking to visuals and connecting the dots. Everyone else, especially senior leaders and executives, can also read your slides, and they get ahead of you, further leading to impatience and tune-out.
What do we need to do instead?
First, get clear on the outcome, decision, or result you want.
Know your audience. Understand their needs, concerns, and their current understanding of the result you're wanting so you can tailor your message accordingly.
Practice your delivery. Rehearse your presentation in advance, paying attention to your tone, pace, and body language. Get a colleague to do this with you, ask them to take notes, and give you frank feedback.
Divide your presentation up to have slides you will speak to at the beginning and slides you don't intend to speak to at the end or in an appendix. These are there to provide context only or be used if a question comes up about it.
Next, share pre-reading, including your entire presentation, ahead of time with all stakeholders. This means everyone is going to know ahead of time what it is that you want.
At the beginning of your meeting, get your audience's attention. Quickly summarize and frame what you're here to do today (your "desired outcome"), set an expectation for how long you'll be speaking and what you expect to happen next.
For example, you might say, "Thanks for being here today. Today's presentation is about agreeing on how to move forward with X (or whatever your desired outcome is). I assume you've all read the pre-reading material, and you may already have questions, so I'll be speaking for 5-10 minutes only, providing context and connecting some dots between things not mentioned in the text, and then there will be plenty of time for questions".
Script some questions so you are prepared for if there are no questions and you only get radio silence from stakeholders. These are designed to push the stakeholder group towards the outcome, result, or decision you want. These types of questions make it easy for the group to engage and voice any concerns to reach a conclusion.
For example, you might say, "Does the silence mean this is all obvious, everyone's in alignment, and we're going to proceed with the decision to do X?" or "Can I take the absence of questions that there are no concerns to proceed with this?". These types of questions make it easy for the group to engage, disagree and voice any concerns, getting towards the conclusion.
In conclusion, delivering impactful presentations is critical for any senior technical leader. It's important to remember that the goal of your presentation is not just to speak but to get the outcome or result you want. To avoid the common mistake of "building up to the grand finale," it's essential to get clear on your desired outcome, understand your audience's needs and tailor your message accordingly, practice your delivery, and share your material as pre-reading with all stakeholders ahead of time.
By using these tips, you can confidently deliver a presentation that captures your audience's attention, delivers your message clearly and effectively, and ultimately achieves your desired outcome. So next time you have to deliver a presentation to a senior leadership team, remember to put your conclusion first and get to the point quickly. Good luck!