To give yourself the best chance of getting what you want from an executive, you must first understand their mindset. What do they care about most? What do they need in order to act quickly on your request? Most senior managers say their life boils down to making decisions, one after another after another, all day. Your critical initiative is competing with many others, all simmering and ready to bubble up at any time. To process any one request, busy executives need to be fed relevant, organized data and facts. They need to quickly absorb three things:
- What you want them to know
- What you want them to do
- Why they should do it now
This list might seem obvious, but we skip one or more of these elements all the time. We charge ahead, fire-hosing executives with slide after slide of bullets, charts and tables. We always assume more facts and data are better. Unfortunately, this is usually a recipe for disaster. Data overload makes it more difficult for people to quickly process and make a decision on any initiative. In many cases, executives will tune out or shut down the idea in a matter of minutes. Game over.
Data-overloaded charts like these get you ignored.
Successfully winning over an executive requires helping them organize their thoughts around your proposal. Think of yourself as a concierge of your ideas. It requires being flexible and responsive to their questions in the moment. Here are three strategies that will help you get the response you are looking for.
1. Have a Big Idea.
There’s one thing most executives agree on: They want to understand your point quickly. The best way to ensure their understanding is by maintaining one overarching message throughout the presentation. This message is your big idea. Your big idea is the strategic engine of your presentation. It should sum up what you want from them and offer a solid benefit that will result from your plan. Make it clear and concise, and repeat it often throughout your narrative. Here are some examples:
- Offering new training initiatives will help decrease turnover.
- Let’s build a culture of storytellers to connect with our future customers.
- We need to commit to bite-size learning to make employees more effective at work.
The beauty of establishing your one big idea is that it helps you confidently choose which supporting data and facts to include in your story – whatever supports your big idea – and which you should leave out. If you always keep your big idea in view, you will stay on a consistent narrative track.
2. Cut Any Extraneous Information.
A common mistake is to recite everything you know about your topic in a presentation. However, it doesn’t make you look smart; it makes you lose your audience quickly. Executives hate to sit through information they already know or don’t need to know. Good preparation means making absolutely sure that you are only including facts and data that propel your big idea forward. While you should always be familiar with greater details yourself, don’t waste your airtime on anything that isn’t going to help you get to your “yes.” Heavy data collectors, in particular, need to avoid over-reporting their findings. Too many charts and tables will only muddle their message.
That being said, executives might ask for details. Always be prepared to drill down when asked.
3. Be Prepared to Pivot.
Executives are active listeners; they love to control the flow of information. Dive into that chart further! Back up to your first slide! Get on with your recommendations! Your presentation could go anywhere. The ability to nimbly pivot when your audience changes your direction or cuts your show time from 30 minutes to five is very important. In fact, it’s the hallmark of a sophisticated presenter.
Here are some keys elements of a pivot strategy:
- Create a dialogue, not a monologue. Check in frequently with your audience, and invite questions at logical moments in your presentation. Do they want more context? Back it up and further set the stage. Even if a senior manager seems like they’re pushing you to hurry, chances are – if their interest is piqued – they will ask you to go back and provide supporting data. Be ready to pivot!
- Read the room. Always be cognizant of the disparate interests of the executives in your audience. Very often, we must present ideas to people who serve very different functions (e.g., the CEO, the vice president of finance, and the head of HR, all in one room). Clearly, they all have different agendas. If you don’t want to face a restless audience, anticipate their questions, and be prepared to pivot (quickly) with multiple supporting arguments.
Good for Today’s Initiative; Great for Your Career
The fastest way to tank your chances of selling your ideas to executives is to frustrate them with meandering, over-detailed presentations. It makes their job as decision-makers even harder. To give your ideas (and all the people who helped you work on them) the chance they deserve, keep in mind your audience’s mindset, articulate a big idea and, finally, stay flexible throughout your presentation. These tips will give you the best chance to drive your strategies, recommendations and, ultimately, your career forward.