Communication Skills

Presenting to Executives: Tips to Get Your C-Suite Listening

By Helen Murphy


Presenting to executives can be, simply put, a challenge.

A lot is asked of the C-suite. They’re tasked with keeping investors, customers, and employees happy. They’re required to see across their entire organization and successfully connect the dots between IT, sales, finance, marketing, product development, and more. In short, they’re juggling priorities and a tight schedule.

Your specific team or role is a blip on their radar – until it’s not. When you get an opportunity to have an executive’s undivided attention, you want to make the most of it. Knowing how they prefer to receive information is the first step in doing so.

Here are five ways you can hone your presentation to make sure your senior executives will listen and respond.

1. Customize Your Delivery

The two things to remember here are brevity and priority.

Executives have decisions to make and problems to solve. It is in your best interest to give them the information and guidance they need, as succinctly as possible, to make these decisions. This means cutting words, simplifying visuals, and never ever including jargon.

But that information could be disregarded if you don’t frame it in a way that speaks to what the executive cares about. In other words, take a step out of your own role – which includes your priorities, your concerns, and even the vocabulary you’re comfortable with – and step into theirs.

For instance, my team and I recently presented recommendations to a client’s new CMO about how to measure the success of our communications program. We prepared a beautiful slide deck on our measurement philosophy complete with examples of what it looks like, our approach to measurement, and lots of data. The conversation fell flat – she saw the slides and all the information on them and didn’t even want to try to digest it. It was too much, shared at a time when she was busy ramping up on a new job.

In our next meeting, we distilled our presentation down to three key points, showed her one visual example, and outlined our next steps. The result? We had a great conversation around measurement, and we quickly got her buy-in on our process.

2. Consider Your Timing

When speaking to C-level executives, always think about the bigger picture at that point in time. What’s going on in their lives, at the business, or in the industry? If it’s earnings season, don’t try to pitch an executive your new idea – you won’t have their full attention.

In my CMO example above, we put a lot of words in front of a new executive at a time when she was getting information thrown at her from left and right. After ramping up, she’d likely be interested in this information again. Understanding and anticipating what is going on in an executive’s work world goes a long way in knowing when and how to communicate with them.

3. Anticipate Their Questions

Your communications to the C-suite should be concise and simple, but preparing those communications is anything but. We have a mantra at INK that we keep in mind when sharing ideas or giving a presentation to one of our clients:

Explanation + Recommendation + Expectation

This translates to, here is what is going on, here is what we should do, and here is the value you should expect to gain.

Back to the CMO example, our explanation was: here are the three things you need to know about measurement. Our recommendation was: here are the next steps we’ll take to get this up and running. And the expectation was: here is what you will be able to show your CEO when it comes to the success of your program.

For measurement conversations with a CEO, our Explanation + Recommendation + Expectation would likely focus on how marketing is impacting the company’s overall growth, revenue, and bottom line.

4. Support Your Recommendations

When presenting to executives, be prepared to back up any recommendation you’re making with data. While an executive might not need to hear or see the data, they’ll want to know that it exists and that you’ve consulted it. That being said: always be ready to share and explain it when asked.

Personas are good example of this lesson. To create personas, we usually aggregate multiple sources of data, both primary and secondary, to paint a complete picture of a customer. When presenting the final product to senior leadership, it’s not necessary to walk through every piece of data that went into the persona. However, if you keep track of which data set informed each aspect of the persona, you’ll be able to point to the exact source, if needed.

Collecting, analyzing, and organizing your data and proof points for executive conversations can take time. So when you’re preparing a presentation, give yourself plenty of time to obtain what you need to back up your recommendation.  

5. Remember that They’re a Person Too

Speaking to senior leadership can be intimidating, but at the end of the day, they are people. They have interests and passions. Understanding what these are can help you connect with them on a more personal level. It can also help you tailor how you present to them.

For instance, we recently did some research to see what CIOs and CTOs at technology companies are talking about on social media. We wanted to know what industry and business topics were resonating with them to inform our communications programs.

While gathering that information, we uncovered a trend we didn’t expect. A number of the CIOs and CTOs we were looking into love to tell dad jokes. Seriously – amidst all the talk about company cybersecurity, digital transformation, and IT hiring shortages, there was a clear affinity for dad jokes.

That doesn’t mean you need to kick off a meeting with a killer pun, but it’s important to remember that you’re talking to a real person. Learn what you can about them so that you can have more of a conversation than a one-sided presentation.

You Are the Expert

If you’re still feeling unsure, read that heading one more time. You were hired because of the expertise and knowledge you possess. Remember this when speaking to leadership. Believe what you’re saying and have confidence that it’s the right solution. Leave them with actionable next steps, so they know you have a plan and the ability to execute it.

You are the expert, and thoughtful communication will ensure the executive in your life knows it.