Conference Room with ChartYou been working on a major new growth initiative for your company. The prospects for success are good. But it’s time to make some big decisions regarding next steps.

Up until now, your boss has been providing the C-suite with progress reports. But today, he’s asked you to present at next week’s review.

You feel like a minor league pitcher that’s been called up to the majors. What an opportunity! You’re about to get an audience with the big shots that dole out raises, bonuses, and promotions. You’re excited.

But, you’re also terrified. What if you botch it?

It’s normal to be nervous. There are certainly plenty of ways to fail.  Reduce your chances by avoiding these four.

1. Surprise The Boss In Front Of The Boss

In this scenario you’re in what is known as a skip-level presentation. That is the most senior executive in the target audience is hearing from two levels down in the organization. He is skipping the level that reports directly to him.

The standing presumption in the room is that your immediate boss, the level being skipped, is already familiar with the content that you’ll be presenting.  If you announce a new idea or issue that you haven’t run by your boss, bad things will happen to you.

First, you will put your boss in the position of having to comment on a topic for which he is unprepared. For that, he will be beyond irritated with you. This is especially true if spring some surprise bad news. Second, you’ll be seen as an unpredictable loose cannon in an executive setting.

Your boss thought enough of you to give you some exposure to the company leadership. Demonstrate that you deserved that opportunity by sticking to the script.

2. Yield To The Friendlies

The bleachers are likely filled with other ambitious, aspiring professionals like yourself.  They are likely from neighboring business units or functions and at the same management level as you.  They are your peers, people that you work with every day. They are the “friendlies.”

Expect questions from them.  Questions that will be right in your strike zone. You’ll know the answers. Your back-up slides will contain the exact detail that they are looking for.  You’ll feel smart and confident answering them.

Caution! Don’t be seduced by what seems like an opportunity to showcase your capabilities.  The friendlies are not your target audience. The most senior executive in the room is.

Your peers and the senior executives in the room have different information needs. The second you leave your primary storyline to field easy grounders from the friendlies, your target audience will get frustrated with you. They will  see you as unfocused and failing to get to the point.

The senior executives are impatient and short on time. They are attending your presentation to get information that they need to do their jobs. Serve them. You can play ball with the friendlies another time.

3. Present Your Details, Not Theirs

When speaking to senior executives, the standard advice is “Summarize to a high level.” This advice is flawed.

It doesn’t consider the needs of the audience.  The information a senior executive needs about a growth initiative is different from the information the project manager needs. Not just in abstraction level, but also in substance.

When presenting to executives, don’t just summarize the information that you use to do your job. Ask yourself “What information do the senior executives need in order to do theirs.”

Better yet, ask them. Then deliver the details that they need.

4. Feign Expertise

You’re in an environment where you are presenting to management one or more levels above you. At some point, you are going to get a question for which you have no answer.

You want to be viewed as potential executive material. You want to demonstrate a grasp of the big issues and the ability to address them with skill and confidence. Answering, “I don’t know” feels like admitting that you’re not ready for the big leagues.

However, you must resist the urge to feign expertise that you don’t have. If you don’t, those more seasoned than you in the room will see right through it. All the credibility that you’ve built up to this point in your presentation will be lost.

A better response would be, “I don’t have a well thought out answer to that question right now. But I’ll get one.”

Maybe leaving a question unanswered means you didn’t hit a home run, but at least you won’t fly out in the bottom of the ninth.

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