A Foundation for Great Executive Presentations

Want to get better? Up your game on presenting to executives.

Because your work will achieve *way* more, with executive support. 
And your work & impact will improve with good executive direction. 

Plus you’ll get:

  • Faster decisions & clearer feedback
  • Better executive relationships & career advancement
  • Shorter & fewer meetings

In this post I’ll cover the foundation of a great executive presentation, with specific behaviors to improve your success.

The Dreaded Executive Presentation

Executive meetings can be stressful, and can feel mysterious in terms of whether they’ll go well or horribly.


When I was 29, I had to pitch the CEO on giving me headcount.

5 minutes into the presentation, he looked at his watch and said:

“Shut up. Stop! This is so f****** stupid. You’re never getting this f****** headcount. I’m more likely to fire you for being such a f****** moron, and fire your boss for ever f****** hiring you.”

His name is Larry.

I failed with Larry because I had not started my prep work by asking myself (and my boss’s boss) what Larry wanted in the meeting. I just took my best guess at what would work. 

I failed because I didn’t deliver what he wanted.

And what I *did* deliver, I delivered neither concisely nor well.

  • I didn’t give the right level of context, state my ask, or convey business impact
  • I didn’t invite him to redirect the conversation
  • I spoke in long, meandering, compound sentences, having many clauses, like this one
  • I gave too much detail
  • I had not written a script, and hadn’t rehearsed out loud 5 times

The Foundation of a Great Executive Presentation

  • Context, direction, ask, impact
  • 5-8 slides in 20 minutes, including discussion
  • Headlines & visuals make your point quickly
  • Spend 80% of prep on delivery, 20% on content

Context, Direction, Ask, Impact

Start your preparation by asking yourself and your colleagues/manager what your exec wants out of this conversation, then open with the context of the discussion, direction on what you want from her (including your “ask”), and the impact of that decision.

“For this year’s goal of boosting employee time in office, we got funding last week for the new HQ collaboration lounge. And today we’ll:

  • discuss and confirm goals for the space,
  • get your feedback on designs & budget,
  • and if you approve today, we’ll start buildout & can open by June.“

Notice what that opening promise tells her

  • CONTEXT Why & what we’ll talk about: business goals, designs, budget 
  • DIRECTION What her job is in that discussion: feedback
  • ASK What you need from her at the end of the meeting: approval
  • IMPACT What her approval will lead to: open by June

Since you’re now at minute 2 of the meeting, this is also a good place to plant your escape hatch:

“Anything else you want to cover?”

The escape hatch invites her to 

  • add something she wants to discuss, or
  • redirect the conversation entirely, or 
  • shortcut to the main thing she wants to talk about. 

The worst thing you can do is talk *at* an executive about stuff she doesn’t care about, so ask!

5-8 slides in 20 mins, including discussion

5-8 slides is optimal for an executive slide deck, and 20 minutes is the optimal length of time. 

If you can’t cover the most salient points in that, you’re trying to cover too much. 

You might have the urge to say “but she might want to know this detail, or ask about it, and I want to show I’m prepared.” Great. Put that in the appendix.

Plan half the time for delivery. In your rehearsals (out loud, with other humans) practice delivering all of your content in 10 minutes. If it doesn’t fit in 10 minutes, edit your script, and cut down your slides. Concise/short sentences.

One point per slide will help the exec understand faster and better – and will invite more conversation, questions and feedback. 

Nota bene: “strong growth, but declining ASP” is 1 point, not 2. Don’t do something like that as two separate slides. Together they are an interesting point.

Plant your questions. And plan them. Every headline should invite a question. Architecting a presentation is like directing a movie. With each slide, provoke the question you’ll answer on the next slide.

Look at the exec’s face after each slide. Is she following you? Is she indifferent? Does she have a question? Is she happy? Only by looking at her face can you make the presentation great.

If you see a reaction, prompt her with: “any questions or feedback?” or “it looks like you have an opinion about that?” People like to be seen.

Merely “helpful” slides go to the appendix, and in your rehearsals with other people, make them work for you by voicing their questions about each point. 

Each question your rehearsal partner asks can get addressed in the main presentation (if it’s important) or in the appendix. I usually have more slides in the appendix than in the presentation.

Headlines and visuals make the point quickly

Look at this slide. Where do your eyes go, in what order?

The answer is they go to the headlines and to the visual. Spend your time coming up with a headline for each slide that makes your point, and with a visual that makes your point for you.

I see 10+ slides a day with headlines that are descriptive of the slide’s content “current business performance”, “North America Pipeline Dynamics”, “Agenda”… these take a high-potential tool, your headline, and waste the hitting power. 

Instead, let the headline make your point.

“Recovery = Too Slow”, “Pipe Increasing, Too Slowly”, “Approve the New Collaboration Space”

Visuals, especially with human faces in them, or high color/value contrast, are where human eyes go first. Even the gray, 3-tone line drawing above draws the eye more than text.

So make each visual as hard-hitting as you can. The plug drawing above gets the main idea across in under a half-second (there are two types of plugs in North America). Also, pet peeve: Using stock photo of random smiling lady, or clip art bullseyes both makes you look lazy AND distracts from your point.

If a data table is your visual, limit it to 4×5, and use big circles or loud colors on the most important 1 or 2 data points (important = supporting your point in the headline).

And obviously, don’t add a bunch of text. No one reads, and if they do read, then they’re ignoring you. 

Spend 80% of Prep on Delivery, 20% on Content

Write, rehearse, and rewrite your script 5 times.
Rehearsing out loud, and iterating on the presentation and script after each time will help you focus the conversation on the most important points, and cut away the dross.

Simple sentences (no clauses or conjunctions)
In your script, use short sentences. It’s how the audience hears. It will make the meeting a conversation. It will speed you to your goal.

Linear flow 
Slide 1 tees up slide 2, which tees up slide 3.
Sentence 1 tees up sentence 2, which leads to sentence 3.

Inflect downward to the period. 
When performing a sentence, bend your pitch and speed downward to the period. Your audience will hear you better. You will seem more authoritative.

Stop at the period and LOOK
The period at the end of a sentence is a piece of musical notation for you. It means ‘shut up’, and cues you to look for reactions, questions, and (dis)agreement.

Invite specific engagement 
“Any ideas for the best approach to plugging the North America performance gap?”

The Joy of Getting Better

Product marketers spend a lot of time presenting, and I’ve found that the above approach will improve every internal presentation, especially executive ones. 

And it’s a funny thing that quite a few of you PMMs out there do a good or very good job at your 3-5 external presentations each year, but do poorly on the more frequent executive presentations — presentations to the very people that are in charge of your paycheck and promotion.

Do the work every time, and you’ll do better every time.

From the front porch in Moss Beach,

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