We've all felt the fluttering butterflies in our stomach when the time comes to present to an individual or group several levels above us in the organization. These men and women may have significant power within the organization, longer tenures, and fancier credentials, making the prospect of a meeting intimidating. While you're unlikely to permanently quell the butterflies as your career advances and these meetings evolve from middle management, perhaps to the CEO of a massive conglomerate, here are a few tips for success.
Start with an end in mind
Regard every conversation higher up in the organization as an opportunity. Even if you are nominally tasked only with providing information, or presenting material that is routine in nature, consider what two or three items you want to leave in the minds of those you are presenting to. Rather than regarding these types of meetings as a routine task of sharing information, look at them as a way to shape the future of the organization.
Furthermore, if you start with a couple of objectives in mind, it will guide the flow of your presentation and content. If your objective is to have a single point "stick" in the minds of the audience, you'll be far less likely to present dozens of slides trying to cover all aspects of a topic.
SEE: How to avoid and overcome presentation glitches (free PDF from TechRepublic)
Assume everyone wants success
In all but a few rare cases, generally when you're presenting content to someone, the audience wants you to succeed. After all, if you fail to convey the material or points, not only have you failed, but the audience has wasted their time. Next time you're on the receiving end of a presentation, notice that most of the audience happily engages in during the first few minutes, hoping that the content and delivery are informative and engaging. This is especially true at the upper echelons of an organization, where time is increasingly precious. Take advantage of those first few minutes of your talk to engage and compel, and you'll likely "own the room" for the remainder of your talk.
One of the great traps many technologists fall into is seeing the world through the lens of technology. When you're presenting up, particularly to non-IT executives or board members, they bring a broader view on the world and are likely trying to determine how technology affects that view or could be integrated into it. Try and put yourself in their shoes and see how the content you're providing fits into their larger view. What concerns do they have? How might the topics you're covering advance their objectives? The more you can tailor your content to the audience and their concerns, the more it will resonate.
Think big and bold
As I've coached technologists making these types of presentations, I'm often surprised how low they set their sights. Among peers they often share detailed plans for how they could improve the organization through technology, but then when interacting with people who can actually move the levers of the organization, they provide half-hearted assessments about what could be done.
As you think through your objectives for the presentation and put yourself in the executives' shoes, don't be afraid to make bold recommendations that could be successful if embraced by people several levels above you in the organization. Run through the laundry list of "If only..." items that you've lamented in the past, and if any are relevant to the content you're presenting, don't be afraid to lay your cards on the table and provide bold insights and potential plans of action.
Rather than regarding presenting up as a tedious and nerve-wracking task, where you're put in the spotlight and expected to perform, look at it as a golden opportunity. You'll have the undivided attention of people who are chartered with steering the course of the organization, and it's a rare opportunity to help shape their decision making and ultimately help shape the future of the organization.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.