Nine Rules for Pitching Ideas to C-Level Executives

Aug. 10, 2011
Former and current executives offer their wisdom on making your case to C-level leaders.

In Fortune 500 executive presentation rooms around the country, promising projects and even management careers are careening off the tracks. Why? Because so often, technical people and even midlevel managers do not have a clue how to successfully pitch their case to the CEO -- or for that matter, to a roomful of C-level executives.

In interviews with senior corporate leaders, we learned what drives them nuts and what impresses them, relative to presentations. Here are the most crucial tips and insights they offer:

1. Use a Sponsor

First, you will need a sponsor who is higher up in your own functional area to help you get on the agenda to begin with. He or she can also help you fine tune your presentation, understand the political realities, keep things on track during the meeting and analyze the meeting afterward.

2. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

"What happens before the meeting is more important than what happens at the meeting," says Dan Warmenhoven, executive chairman of network storage provider Network Appliance Inc. With your project -- and possibly your career -- hanging in the balance, plan carefully for that top-level presentation. Analyze the audience. Determine if they demand qualitative or quantitative information. Finally, check and recheck your numbers. These people can do math on the fly. If your numbers aren't accurate, youre dead in the water.

3. Live by the "10/30 Rule"

The "10/30 Rule" says that if you are scheduled for 30 minutes on the agenda, prepare just 10 minutes of material. The executives will probably hijack the other 20 minutes for discussion. Warmenhoven warns, "If you have a half hour on the agenda, youre not going to get through a half-hour presentation. Were not going to let you. Remember, its our meeting."

4. Make Your First Line Your Bottom Line

"You have 30 seconds to get to the point," says Steve Blank, co-founder and former CEO of Epiphany Inc. "In the past five years, PDAs have gotten so good that I now have a telephone, a TV, the Internet, a computer, and my email at my fingertips. Trust me, all of that is more interesting than you are. If you dont get right to the point, Im gone."

5. Dump (or cut way back on) the Slides

Most business presentations are, necessarily, one-way communication vehicles -- with perhaps a question-and-answer session afterward. But things are very, very different in the boardroom. Top executives want a discussion, not a slide-driven lecture. Paradoxically, a detailed slideshow does not convince them you know your stuff. Former Agilent Technologies Inc. CEO Ned Barnholt says when a presenter "cant talk off the slides," he loses Barnholts trust.

6. Skip Storytelling

Although research shows stories can be more effective than data for getting attention, most executives do not find stories helpful in senior meetings because of time constraints. "These executives didnt come into the room to listen to a five-minute story from you," says Robert Drolet, former senior director of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s Huntsville Operations. "They came in to make a decision and leave because they have an agenda for that day they cant possibly meet."

7. Remember: The CEO Isn't Your Dad

Be sure you arent going into the boardroom looking for a pat on the back. Surprisingly, executives have told us that many technical professionals and even midlevel managers walk into the executive suite with the need to impress. Senior executives do not want to hear about all of the hard work you and your team did to get the data. They want to know what the data means relative to your proposal and their decision-making process.

8. Be Prepared to Improvise

Because the executives prefer a discussion, you need to be flexible enough not only to "let go" of your presentation, but also to get the conversation back on track if it strays -- or worse, if things get contentious. "Your success is 80% in your ability to facilitate the meeting and only 20% in the content, per se," says Steve Kirsch, CEO of Propel Software Corp.

9. Understand Them, and Their World

"The senior executive group has to get tremendous decision volume through their meeting time together," says Harold Fethe, former senior vice president at Johnson & Johnson. "They have horrendous travel schedules. The luxury of being together for meetings is a daily, weekly, tense reality for these folks. You need to respect that and get up to that level of urgency."
To respond to that level of urgency, Oracle Corp. vice president of product management Markus Zirn, advises, "You have to literally throw out everything you learned from traditional presentation training. Its not about making a speech that educates, persuades, inspires or leads. Its about raw decision making."

In other words, if you have been given the opportunity to present in the boardroom, your job is to help the executives make a critical decision that will move the company forward.

Rick Gilbert is the founder of Powerspeaking Inc., speech communication training company in Redwood City, Calif.

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