Has this happened to you? You are halfway through a presentation — just getting to the important details — and you look at the audience and notice the senior vice president checking email and other executives looking politely bored.
Afterward, you are frustrated. You invested considerable time preparing. You proofed your slides for typos and practiced in front of the mirror. You got to the conference room early to test your laptop and projector. You spoke in a confident voice, moved smoothly through your presentation, and explained the technical details. Despite these efforts, your audience was not engaged.
What went wrong?
Individuals at different organizational levels have different perspectives and mindsets that don’t always align. “Because they have different responsibilities, your boss may have priorities that aren’t the same as yours. This means they may not be inclined to hear you out,” says Jamie Sussel Turner, executive coach and author of the book, Less Stress Business: A Guide for Hiring, Coaching, and Leading Great Employees.
Inside the mind of executives
“Executives are often bold thinkers who don’t need the technical details to make a decision. They want results first. As an engineer, you may be used to communicating in a detailed, linear progression — from point A, to B, to C — before sharing your project results,” adds Bruce Rule, an editor and public speaking coach who often works with engineers.
You will likely spend one-third to one-half of your career communicating with executives, as well as colleagues and direct reports. Use these tips to help you engage more effectively and ensure your message is heard.
Do your homework
Assuming what works for one person will work for all audience members is a recipe for disaster. “Talk to others who have made successful presentations about how to approach the executives you will be speaking to,” says Barry Bennett, a process safety leader at Stepan Co.
You will learn which executives are detail-oriented and want to hear background information and which want only the bottom line.
If you will be presenting to your immediate boss, Sussel Turner advises, “Find an opportunity before your presentation for an in-depth conversation to learn what they value and their expectations.”
You can also use the conversation to share information about your expectations and what you hope to accomplish.
Answer “What’s in it for me?”
Your audience wants to hear “What’s in it for me?” in the first five minutes of your talk. “If you don’t answer this question early, you will lose their interest,” says Marc Champagne, a process control optimization engineer at ADM, Inc.
If you relate to their interests right away, the audience will be more likely to listen and ask questions at the conclusion of your presentation. “This applies whether you’re talking to the CEO, vice president, or shift operator,” says Champagne. And, adds Sussel Turner, “when you present your point of view in a logical and succinct way, it shows you value your audience’s time.”
Start with a summary
Begin with a synopsis of project results so your audience learns your main point right away. Then, state what action you want them to take. “For instance, if you want your boss to know results surpassed expectations and a decision is needed about the next round of project financing, communicate this up front,” says Rule.
“It’s okay to say ‘Here’s what I want you to take away from this discussion’ before you move further into your talk.”
Use data selectively
Projects, especially complex or long-term ones, generate large quantities of data, not all of which are pertinent to your audience.
“Don’t just present data, present information and relate it to how it affects the company’s objectives. Be business-oriented in your communications,” says Edmund Ezeike, Operations Head, Axxela Ltd., Nigeria.
Keep it simple
Speak in plain English, avoid technical acronyms, and use visual aids to help explain complex concepts. However, cautions James Diebold, a principal scientist at Community Power Corp., “Never show a complex table in a presentation and say, ‘I know you can’t read this.’”
Rule advises that you move relevant technical details to slides that will serve as additional material if needed but aren’t intended for the main presentation. “If your audience has a technical question, then you can pull up these slides and talk through them,” he says.
Examples help your audience better understand and relate to your message. For instance, if you are explaining the hazards of steam, describe an incident where a person sustained steam burns.
Offer potential solutions
If you’re presenting a problem your boss needs to help resolve, propose one or two alternative solutions and the pros and cons of each. “The boss wants you to tell them what the next steps and solutions are,” says Rule. “You need to put the silver lining around the cloud.”
Encourage two-way communication
Resist the urge to rush through your presentation. Allow the audience time to process your content and ask questions. Most importantly, “Look at your audience. If they start to look lost, you may need to add explanation. If they look glazed over, you may need to speed up or omit some details,” says Bennett.
This article originally appeared in the Career Connections column in the June 2019 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at aiche.org/cep.