The more senior the executives you are making presentations to, the more likely you are to blow it. The problem isn't nervousness. It's that you're likely using a flawed presentation approach.
That's the opinion of Mike Figliuolo, a consultant based in Columbus, Ohio, who says the decks used in presentations are getting longer and longer while the attention span of senior executives is shorter and shorter. "Senior executives are frustrated," he says in an interview.
He has coined Figliuolo's Law, which essentially is: The more senior an individual is, the less time they have for detailed explanations. "But the higher up in the food chain the more we feel we have to do the research."
Nothing is wrong with research, of course. But our usual preparation method involves tons of it, somewhat indiscriminate, as we seek data, then analyze them and finally turn them into a presentation. It's inefficient because a lot of the analysis never sees the light of day. And it also encourages us to cram as much of our research as possible into the presentation, which ultimately hurts it rather than helping it.
He recommends, instead, what he calls the structured thought process, borrowed from the approach top consulting firms use. The nine steps are:
Define the question: You have to understand what the problem is before you solve it, so seek clarity from the requestor as to what the main issues are and why those need to be addressed. Document it in writing.
Create a core idea: Start with developing a preliminary answer to the question, so you can outline your primary recommendation to solve the problem. At this stage, it's purely a hypothesis, but it provides focus for the work ahead – the action that will need to be taken. "Don't worry about having the right answer at this stage. You only need to have an answer to begin your exploration," he writes in his book The Elegant Pitch. But test it on people involved with the issue, to ensure you're on track.
Build the architecture: Figure out how you will arrange your facts and analyses to support the core idea. If the issue is a faulty IT system, what will you need to find out to prove it's broken and that a new system will work better and be economical?
Create the story: You will need a narrative to make your case, translating the argument you conceived in the previous stage into a logical story that flows. This isn't a fancy fable, but just the way to tell about the current IT system's flaws and what the advantages of a replacement will be.
Discuss and refine the story: Test the tale on others to ensure nothing critical is missing. "You don't want to make a recommendation and have the compliance officer say in the meeting that what you are proposing is illegal," he says in the interview. He points out that you are getting feedback on your approach before you expend effort on analysis.
Select core facts and analyses: Define what information is needed to make your case and begin the research. This method is not about having all the facts but the right facts to understand your proposal.
Prove or disprove the hypothesis: The fact you have narrowed your research down should not mean being blinkered, obsessed with proving the case, since you'll likely get shot down at the final presentation. You may find in the research the cost of the new IT system is higher than you thought and the proposed recommendation is shaky or dumb. "Sometimes, the story will change 180 degrees," he notes. That means revising the core idea. Or perhaps what you discover only requires tweaking the story.
Finalize the communication: Now, you can start preparing the presentation slides or the report. Choose the preferred method of the decision maker.
Share the idea: Tell your story and seek approval.
Mr. Figliuolo says the method will provide for more focused, shorter presentations – elegant pitches.
Too often, however, people get the steps out of order, wanting to immediately seek data. "If you make a sandwich out of sequence, it's a mess," he notes.
The other big danger is confirmation bias: Trying too hard to prove your thesis and ignoring critical information. But over all, he believes the approach will improve your chances next time you are making a case to top management.