How to Present to an Executive Audience: Prepare, Perfect, Practice and Pre-empt

A microphone in a room of executives awaiting a presentation.

When was the last time a presentation inspired you? Seriously…think about it. Now envision the last speaker who truly motivated you and ask yourself, was it their slides? (Dramatic pause.) I’m willing to bet that what got your attention had virtually nothing to do with the content presented…and everything to do with how it was delivered.  

When presenting to an executive audience, this is even more critical. You have only a few minutes to convince your audience that the most valuable way they can spend their time right now is by tuning in to what you are saying. So, as you prepare for that next opportunity to speak in front of executives, keep these things in mind.  

  • Set their expectations – They call it an executive “briefing” for a reason and the execs in attendance will be chomping at the bit to ask questions. Let them know at the outset that you will provide plenty of time for discussion. 

  • Make your point…quickly – Speakers tend to get so wrapped up in what they want to say that they forget why they are there and to whom they are presenting. Other than possibly your children, executives are likely to be your toughest critics—and their time is money. To establish authority and gain their support, start with your conclusion and recommendation, then use the rest of your time to provide additional insights and answer questions.  

  • Apply the “so what” rule – To make a point, think about what you want to convey and why it is important to this executive audience. You can do that by literally asking yourself, “So what?” as you outline your presentation. This forces you to get to the heart of the matter with less beating around the bush. 

  • Keep your slides clean – I’ve said this before and it bears repeating: if you overload your slides with too much text, you will lose your audience without having to say a word. If you know your slide is an eye chart (and if you feel compelled to apologize for the density of the material), then start over. Your slides should be used as digital scenery—they are there to guide you, not to convey the entire message. Consider expressing just one key message per slide. Putting multiple themes on a slide is difficult to cover and confuses your audience. It is better to have 30 concise, clear slides than 10 that are dense and overpopulated. 

  • Use relevant imagery – Pictures and graphics help tell your story, but only if they relate to your presentation. Refrain from using cutesy images—this is not the audience for those. Design your slides, don’t decorate them. Charts and graphs work especially well in executive presentations with a few key bullet points to call out the primary message. 

  • Be consistent – Beware of copying and pasting slides from one presentation into another. If you don’t do it properly, you can end up with different fonts, colors and perspectives that result in a really disjointed presentation. Don’t underestimate the importance of look and feel. Use a template or a style guide to ensure that your slides don’t look like a hot mess. 

  • Be picky too – There is nothing worse than finding a typo on your slide when you are in the midst of presenting. Read them, re-read them and have someone else re-read them to ensure that you have everything buttoned up. You might also consider testing your slides on an overhead projector. What looks good on your computer may not display well on the projector, which can distract your audience.  

  • Stick to what you know – This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Many people feel like they need outside data to establish credibility, so they slip in information they know precious little about. Don’t succumb to that trap. If you have something in your presentation that you can’t speak intelligently about, then be prepared for the executive who zeroes in on that one thing that you do not know. On that note… 

  • Prepare yourself for every possible question – Realistically this is impossible, but the point is that there WILL be questions. So look at every slide, detail, conclusion and recommendation…and then poke holes in your own presentation until you are thinking like an executive.  

  • Practice, practice, practice – This is the most understood, but least applied rule of thumb. You may wing it really well in meetings, but this is not the audience you want to go into flying blind. Practice in the mirror. Run your presentation by someone outside the company. Rehearse in front of a colleague and always ask for feedback: Do your slides support your words? Are you getting your point across succinctly?  Does your presentation raise other issues you need to prepare for? One of the best ways to iron out all your idiosyncrasies is to tape yourself. Listen for the filler words like “you know” or “um.” When a speaker uses too many of the same filler words during a speech, the listener stops hearing anything else they say. I’m sure we can all think of a speaker who overused a filler word. Did you find yourself counting how many times they did it? Do you remember what their presentation was about? Don’t be that speaker. 

  • Cater to your style – Let’s face it…not everyone delivers humor well. Don’t try to imitate someone else’s presentation style—what works for them, may fall flat on you. If you try to force a style that isn’t natural to you, it will show in your presentation. Jokes can be a great icebreaker, but not if your timing is off.  

  • Engage the crowd – Presenting to a senior audience might be your biggest fear, but if you practice and know your stuff, then you can relax and engage with the crowd. Make eye contact, scan the room, move from behind the podium and for goodness sake, smile!  

If you take away anything from this post, remember these four words: prepare, perfect, practice and pre-empt. If you have done your research and tailored your presentation so it is succinct and to the point, practiced it ad nauseam and thought through all the possible scenarios, you will handle your next executive presentation like a pro!  


Sarah Holliman
Sarah Holliman is formerly the Chief Marketing Officer at SIG. She has more than 20 years of experience in the sourcing industry. Prior to joining SIG's leadership team, Sarah was with A.T. Kearney, leading the marketing efforts for the A.T. Kearney Procurement & Analytic Solutions unit. She also spent five years at A.T. Kearney consulting primarily to financial services companies on topics that ranged from strategic planning to procurement cost reduction to back-office operations. Before joining A.T. Kearney, Sarah was in business development at one of the largest commercial banks in the country.
Sarah has held numerous leadership positions on non-profit boards promoting children, women and educational issues, and has specific expertise in membership development, fundraising and strategic development. Sarah has a BA from Furman University and an MBA from the Anderson School at UCLA.