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Podcast: How to give a presentation that impresses the c-suite

Jay Surti, Business presentation coach, speaker, consultant and author


Most leaders will be familiar with giving presentations to their peers, team members, customers and clients. However, presenting to the C-suite brings its own unique challenges and can be a daunting prospect.
 

Today I’ll be chatting with keynote speaker and presentation skills coach Jay Surti, author of The Presentation Book For Senior Managers: An Essential Step by Step Guide to Structuring and Delivering Effective Speeches. We’ll be discussing the best practices involved in delivering a presentation to the c-suite and the ways in which you can effectively engage with this unique audience.


1. Could you introduce yourself to our listeners and tell them a little bit about who you are, and what you do?

(1:10) I’m an author and speaker on the topic of presentation skills. But before that, I was a lawyer who became fascinated with public speaking, and that Fascination came out of necessity because for a very long time I had a debilitating fear of public speaking so I wanted to find a solution to be able to cope with that. And through that, I just became really interested in all things presentation. Now, I help other people create an impact with their speaking.

2. A key role of leaders is to inspire change, how do you think a really strong set of presentation skills can help them do that?

(2:05) Well, inspiring others requires effective communication skills, but most importantly understanding other people’s perspectives. You can have one message but you actually need to adapt it for every member of your team or every person in your audience, whatever that might be. When you work on your presentation skills or holding your presentation skills, you have to plan for that. You have to think about your audience very carefully and adapt. And so, by doing that, I think it makes you a much better leader, a much more effective communicator. And then that, then translate into being more inspiring and being able to motivate people in your team. The key things are understanding that you have a variety of people in your audience and to have some kind of empathy and then be able to tailor your message is really important.

3. I think any presentation can present challenges, but what are the unique challenges that leaders face when presenting to really senior executive or C-suite audiences?

(3:15) They’re very busy people. Today, they tend to think strategically, so they may not be interested in the minute details. So when you are thinking about presenting or getting ready for it, think about key messages and the highlights rather than getting bogged down and being tempted into putting in too much content. Actually, that’s something that a lot of speakers fall into the trap of. But with a very senior audience, a C-suite audience is thinking about what your objective is. What is it that you want out of that interaction, but more importantly, what do you want them to do. So, being clear about your objective is the first place to start because it might be that you need them to make a decision or to give you something, whether that’s funding et cetera. So, being clear about your objective, understanding that they’re busy. The other thing is, you might well get interrupted, so you might have a plan for your presentation, and then somebody will jump in and divert you, so being prepared to go with the flow and make sure you have enough preparation is really important. And then the last thing, timing. So, just make sure that you have practised to stick to your time slot because you might not get a second chance, and if you don’t finish and get the result that you want, then all that effort doesn’t really go anywhere.

I think your point there on preparing for those interruptions is so interesting. I’ve seen it in world leaders, perhaps when they’re presenting on the news or being asked questions that they’re in this great flow, they know what they’re delivering, and then they’re really thrown by an interruption, and you lose the thread of your argument or of the point that you’re trying to make. It can be very disruptive and derailing.

(5:07) Yeah, it can be but it doesn’t have to be.

4. Is there anything else that they can do to really help them prepare well for a very important presentation?

(5:23) There are a number of things. The key thing is setting aside time to prepare because most professionals are busy themselves. One of the key things that I have found when working with lots of different people in various different industry sectors is the intention is there to prepare but other things dive in and take over your time. You might have good intentions, but you don’t prepare, and you absolutely need to. I think the only way to do that is to put some time in your diary, 15 minutes every other day. You’re doing something in terms of planning for your presentation, and that is researching your content and thinking about what you want to say. That can include, if possible, asking members of your audience, what are the key points that are relevant and how does the audience want to receive that information because that can really help you plan properly. So, researching content, planning your structure, those are really important aspects. You might have some visual aids and slides et cetera. So, you need to set aside time to be able to put that together or get them over to help you with it.

Another really important aspect is to make some time to rehearse. This is where people typically cut corners because they might spend all their time on content and slides, but not actually set aside time to rehearse. The benefit of rehearsing is you need to know how long you’re speaking for. If you have 10 minutes or 15 minutes, you need to know what that feels like. If you are really comfortable with your material and you’ve rehearsed it in chunks, then if you get interrupted and you get thrown off course, you can mentally adjust and come back in where you need to, and make sure that you at least finish with your strong conclusion or whatever that is. Taking time to make sure that you’ve planned properly, doing your research, and then rehearsing it is really, really important. And of course, focusing on your objective. Now, that’s the starting point actually. When you know what you want to get out of that interaction or what you want the audience to do with it, you can then reverse engineer your content to make sure it leads to that ultimate goal.

5. Do you think there’s a risk of seeming stale or over-rehearsed. Is that a really unlikely risk?

(7:57) It is really unlikely. It’s funny you say that because that’s the pushback that I get quite a lot, is that I don’t want to be over-rehearsed, I’m going to come across as really sort of stilted. The trap that people fall into is thinking that they need to memorise their presentation word for word. Actually, it’s the opposite. By practising and rehearsing you get to vocalise what it is that you’re saying because it looks very different to when it’s on paper, and I always suggest that people don’t write a script, you just have your key points and every time you rehearse it, it will come out slightly differently. But that’s okay, as long as you’ve got signposting.

The other key thing to remember is, in the moment, the audience are listening to your presentation for the very first time. You might have rehearsed it a hundred times, but you need to be mindful of the fact that your energy and your vocal variety or tonality needs to reflect that. For them, it’s their first and possibly only interaction with this particular presentation. So that’s what you need to focus on rather than worrying about learning it off by heart.

6. Would you recommend that the people go as far as to arrange meetings with key members of the audience prior to that presentation to ensure the messaging is relevant?

(9:31) Yeah, absolutely. Every time. Because it gives you that insight in terms of how people are thinking and you want to hit the right mark. I don’t think there’s any danger of spoiling the reveal because you’re bringing your personality into it, so it’s not necessarily just about the content. But at least you get an idea of who sat around that table, are there people that actually do want that detail because even though I’ve suggested earlier that you’re focusing on strategy and high level, you still need to be prepared to dive into that minor detail if somebody asks. So, having that knowledge in advance helps you to plan properly. Sometimes it’s not possible to actually speak to somebody who’s going to be in that audience. The next best thing is to research elsewhere and you could do it with mentors or other people in similar roles or situations outside of your organisation because that’s still very helpful.

7. Do you have any advice or tips on how our listeners can better present a really complicated topic in a clear and impactful way?

(10:46) Yeah, absolutely. Don’t make your audience work too hard, even though they’re a highly intelligent audience. There are several things that you can do to break down a complicated topic. The obvious places to start are thinking about quite often charts and data. Yes, it is necessary quite often to have that level of complex detail. But if you’re using visual aids whether that’s on a slide or handing out something, think about how you can break it down and take it in stages so that it’s easier to process and digest.

Other things that you can do, not only to make it easier to process information but to make it more interesting is to create hooks. So if you are explaining a point, can you put it next to something that’s much more familiar or can you put it next to a story example or case because that not only makes the content easier to process, but it makes it memorable, and that’s really what you’re going for is your interaction, your presentation. You want it to be sticky.

I can give you an example of comparison. A few years ago. I worked with somebody to find ways to cut waste, and the particular commodity that they were dealing with was a beverage. The volume of waste, coincidentally, was something that would fill an Olympic swimming pool, which is 2.5 million meters. So obviously, if you tell that to an audience, we all get a reference of what that is, but when you put it next to something that people can relate to, you get a visual image, you know mental image of an Olympic swimming pool, and that makes it much more memorable by comparing a figure or statistic to something else. It’s probably unrelated but that doesn’t matter. It just makes it easier to follow.

8. How important that you have a really strong start to your presentation, and do you have any examples of a good way to start?

(13:27) Yes, it’s always good to have a strong start, particularly with this audience. Attention spans can be even shorter, so you have a few seconds to grab their attention. I would say rather than spending too much time introducing because they probably know who you are or introducing the topic, dive straight into the presentation. There are a few ways in which you can do that in an interesting way. It could just be as simple as you’re setting the scene and explaining what the objective of the presentation is, but you could open with an interesting fact or statistic. You could open with a short story because that’s an unusual way to start, or you could ask a question. That example that I shared with the Olympic swimming pool, that speaker just to break the ice, introduced a quick pop quiz and just ask people in the audience to guess. What is the volume of an Olympic swimming pool, and then when they told them, they said, “That is how much we are wasting, so what are we going to do about it?” and then move into the presentation.

9. What advice do you have for those who do suffer really bad nerves or stage fright?

(15:11) I learned the hard way. Just by speaking to lots of speakers and watching, and then I became a bit of a geek. After all of that, I came to the realisation that actually, for me, it was two key things and they’re really simple. One was my level of preparation. I could take comfort in the fact that I had planned, and prepared, and rehearsed, and that would give me the confidence to know that I couldn’t get lost and I’d always be able to find my way back. There are no shortcuts with that route, but it’s absolutely necessary. So it was good for me and good for the audience because they would have a better experience.

The second realisation was that shifting the focus for me to the audience was really important. Because ultimately, the whole point of me being there is to create that experience for the audience, and presenting something for their benefit, to add value to get some kind of decision. So, preparation and shifting the focus from me to them really helped. Other things that can be useful, mindset is really important. It can be really easy to go down a negative mindset and start focusing on feeling less confident.

And by the way, it’s not just people that fear public speaking, sort of generally, it can happen to anybody at any time. You could be the most confident speaker, but because the stakes are high, this particular presentation is causing you some anxiety. So it’s just making sure that you focus on the positive because you get what you focus on. Thinking about how much preparation you’ve done, that you’re an expert in this particular area, all of those things. Choose to focus on things that you can control and other things, leave them to one side.

Other techniques that are really helpful are visualisation, which is used quite a lot in sports psychology. Imagining your presentation or pitch or whatever the interaction is going exactly the way that you want it to, and using all of your senses to make it really rich and sensory can help because unconsciously, you’ve gone through that process, so when you deliver your presentation, it is not for the first time. And simple things like breathing that deep breathing exercises before you present can be really helpful during your presentation because we have an adrenaline rush. And that’s a good thing because it just means that you’re ready for action, but because of that sometimes breathing can get faster, and then that can come through in your voice and you can come across as less confident. So remembering to stop at places, take a pause, and breathe will help to regulate any nerves that there are. That also gives your audience an opportunity to process what you’ve just shared. It’s quite a good technique to build in places where you can stop and pause.

Lastly, having some kind of ritual and to get you in the right zone before. The right frame of mind before you get up to present, and that could be as simple as listening to a piece of music that puts you in a really good mood. I’m sure most people have a favorite track that takes them to a particular place where they felt good and confident.

An often touted but perhaps controversial piece of advice about visualising your audience in their underwear, but clearly not, visualising a successful presentation, that makes a lot of sense.

(19:43) That’s a myth, isn’t it? A lot of people talk about it. It doesn’t work for me, but everybody’s different and it’s just finding your thing isn’t it, so whatever helps you to feel calmer or ready to present, then don’t have to tell anyone you have to share it with anybody.

Also, I think you said something really fascinating there about the adrenaline, the nerves, they can actually be a good thing if you keep them under control. It can increase the power of your delivery, your energy.

(20:18) Exactly. That’s the reframe, isn’t it? It’s thinking about it as actually a positive thing, not a negative thing because it shows that you care and you’re interested in the outcome and the interaction. So definitely a good thing but there are things you can do to control it.

10. Are there any body language and tone of voice considerations that our listeners should be mindful of when presenting to that executive audience?

(20:47) Yes. I’m a big fan of natural delivery, and I always recommend that people adopt a conversational tone of voice because that’s your personality coming through. It’s what you see is what you get, and sometimes it can be really difficult to emulate that because you’re thinking about so many different things. So, ironically, need to practice that through rehearsal. The tone of voice from that perspective, having it conversational and natural is important, but also at the same time, your voice box is a really important tool and it’s one that people don’t often use that well. You can use it to your advantage to change the pace, change the volume, all those things at different points in your presentation to add some colour to your presentation. What is less good is if you talk too fast or you become breathless and you forget that the audience is there, just be mindful of that.

Other nonverbal things that could play a part in your presentation are unconscious fidgeting, moving about because I like to have a sort of natural style. I think it’s okay to have some kind of mannerisms, some people talk with their hands. What the test is though is, is it going to be distracting for your audience? and the only way that you can find that out is either get somebody to give you feedback or better still, record yourself on video. You don’t have to share it with anybody else, at least at that point, you can see and hear what your audience will, and you then have the choice to make some adaptations to iron it out. So in a nutshell, is it going to be distracting for the audience, and then you can do something about it. So that way you’re coming across as confident, and natural, and much more engaging.

I’m sure that some people would disagree with me and advocate that there is really only one way to be when you’re presenting. I disagree with that. I think we’re human beings and we all have our unique personalities. So, much better to do that than to have a sort of robotic persona.

11. I’ve heard an awful lot about the potential of power poses. If I’m presenting to a C-suite, a really senior audience that I want to sway, should I be putting my hands on my hips, and trying to adopt something like a Superman pose or is that a bit nonsensical because it’s not very natural for me?

(23:51) Maybe. That concept comes from Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, and in a nutshell, that’s about our mind-body connection. So, when you adopt a powerful pose for 2 minutes that helps you feel more confident, so it’s definitely a good thing. However, it’s something that you do in private. I talked earlier about rituals and listening to music. So, adopting a power pose whether that’s hands on your hips, or arms in the air, or a fist pump, whatever works for you, if you do that in a separate room or in the bathroom before you go into the meeting space, that will work really well. But in the actual presentation room, you can do something similar and that is just to have open body language. So rather than hands on hips, it’s just making sure that you have good posture, you maintain good eye contact, and you have open body language because that, unconsciously, conveys confidence. So, rather than looking ridiculous, you can do those things in private, but just remember that when you’re actually in front of an audience, you still need to be aware of how you’re coming across with your body language.

12. Do you have any advice specifically for how to deliver a really impactful presentation when you’re just talking to a screen, and maybe you can’t even see your audience?

(25:49) Yes, that does pose a challenge. It’s about reminding yourself that you do have actual people on the other side of your camera lens and trying to bring that in-person experience through the medium of technology. A lot of it will be, again, your tone of voice and being as natural as possible. The other challenge with delivering through a camera, there are some tech issues to be aware of. So even if you can’t see all of your audience, you might be able to see some of your audience, they can probably see you and it’s making sure that you are emulating the feeling of eye contact because you would connect with a live audience by looking at people.

So to do that, do it through the camera lens and it’s making sure you have your laptop or device camera at your eye level and you might need to put your device on a pile of books or on a stand so that you can do that. And when you speak, it’s really tempting to look at your screen because if you can see other people’s faces it’s almost as if you’re talking to them, but actually, you’re not, you want to look through the camera. So there’s that, but also on the flip side because your audience are in their own spaces, they can switch their cameras off and they can multitask, and you won’t necessarily know that they’re engaging with you. So, you can do the best you can with your delivery and be engaging, but make sure that you keep your audience with you. There are things you could try like using the chat box or functionality, introducing some polls or just literally just pausing at certain points in your presentation and just opening up for a bit of a debate or a Q&A session, so that you’re bringing people back in and having that engagement because you’re trying to create that connectedness that you would if you’re in the room with people.

13. What signs can someone look out for the C-suite audience is engaged with what they’re saying, perhaps, when they are in the room or failing that when cameras are turned on, what should they be looking out for?

(28:25) In a way that is quite intuitive. I think most of us know when people are listening to us or not, and you can tell that through body language and eye contact. So, people are looking in your direction and nodding along, that seems quite obvious. But that’s not to say that if they’re not looking at you or that they’re writing something on the device that they’re not listening, they can be. So, don’t be tempted thinking you’ve lost people in the audience. Focus on what you can control, and that is having a really good presentation. You being enthusiastic and engaging for the audience. If you think you’re losing people, break the pattern.

There are a few things that you can do, and that could be that you just pause. If you just pause for what might seem like an eternity for two or three seconds, people think I don’t know if I missed something, and they’ll just sit up and listen. You could throw some questions out to the audience, and they could just be rhetorical questions, getting to just pause and think, or inviting a response from the audience. You can use your voice to change it up or down because that will wake people up.

There are things you can try, but ultimately, if some of those don’t work and there are still people in the audience that look like they’re disengaged, that’s okay, too. You don’t know what’s going on in their mind, they might have something that is bothering them. Sometimes you just won’t get a hundred percent of the audience. You could have delivered that same presentation yesterday, knocked it out of the park and had everybody engaged, and yet, that same presentation with a different audience today might not necessarily resonate with everybody. So what I’m saying is do what you can, control the things that you can control, and take the pressure off yourself because sometimes you won’t get a hundred percent of the audience, and rather than focus your energy on the one person who’s not engaging, divide your attention with the rest of the audience who are engaged. So it’s about balance.

It’s amazing how powerful something as simple as a pause can be. Because I think it can be tempting to always fill all of the space, all of the time with words, but as you say, I would look up for even from the most fervent note-taking if the speaker had paused talking, thinking what have I missed or what’s happening here, and it would possibly help recapture my attention if I had been distracted by a pressing email or other concern not related to that presentation.

14. Assuming the presentation has gone brilliantly, there is so often an opportunity for a bit of a Q&A session. Can you share any tips for our listeners to help deal with inevitable tough questions that can come either at the end of the presentation or sometimes during it?

(31:29) People worry about the Q&A session even more than the presentation itself because one of the common fears is, am I going to be asked a question that I don’t know the answer to, and I’m not going to look as professional as I could. There are things that you can do to combat that and prepare. So, when you are preparing for your presentation, your brainstorming content, at that point, or when you’re interviewing members of the audience, think about questions that could come up. Think about all the possible curveballs, put yourself in their shoes. You’ve got some content that you want to share, but obviously, you can’t cover everything that you know about that topic.

So there’s going to be things that you leave out. Taking all of that information, list a handful of questions that could come up, and practice your answers in the same way that you would for the actual presentation. That will take the sting out, a lot of it. Genuinely, there will be times when you just can’t answer the question, either because you have a brain freeze or you hadn’t thought about it. So at that point, you can also rehearse your version of, “I don’t know,” or “It’s something I hadn’t thought about,” and if possible, “Can I come back to you later?” if the scenario lets you do that. It’s about how you deal with it. So if you can confidently convey, “Actually, you know what? I don’t know. I’m okay with that” or even ask other people in the audience if that’s a possibility, “I don’t come across that. Does anybody else in the audience have an opinion?” So it’s just finding ways that you can cope because it is absolutely okay not to know the answer and rather than being a rabbit in headlights. You just own it and say that you don’t know and move on from that.

[(33:20)] Host: That’s so interesting. From my own experience, I would always rather someone admit that they don’t know or they need to go away and check that or come back to me than have someone make up an answer that wasn’t either factual or right. I respect their expertise and their credibility much more if they were honest. That’s not something that we’ve considered or I’d need to check to ensure that I give you an accurate answer to that, but we can feel all the pressure that we should have answers to absolutely everything at our fingertips, and be able to deliver them at a moment’s notice.

(33:57) Yeah, and if it helps, I always suggest that buy yourself some time, ask the question to be repeated, or even jot it down, so that you have some time to think, and you’ve got in front of you what it is that you need to answer rather than panicking in the moment to give a response. That’s not the right one.

15. If there is one key piece of advice for our listeners, what would it be?

(34:36) Develop your personal brand. And by that, I mean personal brand is what people think about you. It’s your visibility. It’s your profile and that is online and offline. Focusing on offline because obviously, I’m passionate about presentations is finding more opportunities to speak, whether it’s chairing a team meeting, contributing to a team meeting, giving a seminar, all of these things help to add to your personal brand bank account. So, proactively develop that.

16. If our listeners would like to find out more about you and the work you do, are you on social channels, do you have a website they could check out?

(35:31): Best place to find me is on LinkedIn.


About this author

Jay Surti is a business presentation coach, speaker, consultant and author of Ultimate Presentations and The Presentation Book for Senior Managers. She works with executives, teams and MBA candidates to help them transform their presentations to make sure they engage with their audience and get their message across. She has been a Judge at MassChallenge UK and served as an Executive Board member of Women in Banking and Finance and the University of Dundee.

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