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Chapter 3: How to Present Up the Management Chain


Peter, is a middle manager who works for a giant telecommunications company. At his level, managers are required to update the executive vice presidents, two levels up the management chain, once every quarter. This is a good management practice because it gives middle managers exposure to senior management. It also keeps senior management informed via a voice that is closer to the customer.

Here was Peter's moment - an opportunity to shine in front of senior management - during a quarterly update. And it was unquestionably a memorable experience, though not the kind Peter wanted to remember!

The Presentation

Peter stood at the head of a large oval table with about thirty people around it. The four senior managers were on either side of him. Peter's presentation was first. He put up his first slide and began. All the executive vice presidents (EVPs) seemed to be paying attention - for the first few minutes. Then, out of the corner of one eye, Peter noticed something that made it hard for him to concentrate on what he was saying. One of the EVPs started to fidget with his mobile phone. Peter looked at the others around the table. They were still looking at him. Another minute passed, and Peter noticed that the attention of the senior managers had changed. Most of them were now watching the EVP with the mobile phone! Peter struggled. He looked at his digital projection to try and refocus. The EVP was still fidgeting.

The EVP Leaves the Room

Then it got worse. The EVP with the mobile phone stood up as though he had received a signal to do so, turned, and walked out of the room. Yes, he walked out of the meeting after only five minutes! Peter was flabbergasted, as were his peer presenters who were, of course, desperately trying to figure out how to avoid the same fate!

The EVP's reaction was only different from many others because he physically exited the room. We have all been at meetings where senior managers were present in body only. Their minds were elsewhere, but we smiled at them and talked to them, and everyone in the room kept up the pretense.

Lesson Learned

In many ways the EVP was doing these middle managers a great favor. He taught them a business lesson that could last their careers. We are notoriously a society of bad listeners. Our managers are also. To keep people in the room, we need to give them a reason to pay attention to our presentations.

Key Preparation Questions

To enhance your credibility and avoid Peter's fate, here are some questions to consider as you prepare - specifically - to present up the management chain.

  1. How can you get listeners interested and on track in the first thirty seconds of your presentation?

  2. How long do you have for the presentation?

  3. What kind of visual support will you need?

  4. Where will you be giving the presentation?

  5. Who will be in your audience?

Let us take the questions one at a time and see how we can build a presentation that stimulates management's interest and captures their attention.

1. How can you get listeners on track and interested in the first thirty seconds of the presentation?

Answer this question first: Why are you speaking to these senior managers? What will they gain as a result of listening to you for ten minutes or so? Kevin Weiss, president of Pitney Bowes Global Mailing systems, put it this way: "At my level, I can't be an expert on everything. I must rely on and trust the presenter to be that. In fact, I am an expert on nothing.

"I rely on my managers to know the facts and be conversant with the detail. The number one question I have is, what is the objective of this meeting and what decisions have to be made?"

To Kevin Weiss, and other senior managers, you start to demonstrate your credibility (or lack of it) right up front by giving them reasons you are worth listening to.

State the Purpose

Start the meeting with a statement of purpose. Follow up quickly with an agenda that outlines the track you will follow. After the small talk and social amenities, begin the business meeting with this statement:

The purpose of this meeting is to . . .

Here are some examples of what your statement of purpose in your presentation might sound like:

"I'm going to update you on the unprecedented results of our marketing campaign and ask you to make some decisions about what we should do next."

"I hope to get your approval for a two-million-dollar investment in technology that I believe will get us a three-million-dollar return within the first two years of the expenditure."

"I will explain what caused our dramatic increase in revenue this month and why we think that positive trend will continue."

"I'm here to ‘fess up' to our mistakes and share our plan for improvement."

In each of these examples, you'll notice how there are certain words that cause the ears to perk up. These words give the audience a reason for listening - words like "unprecedented," "fess-up," and "dramatic increase."

Why Should They Care?

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my friend Eric Baron, who also happens to be my old boss and a wonderful speaker. He said, "Whenever you are presenting to people, the first question you need to answer is, ‘So What?' Why should the audience care about what you say?"

By headlining your presentations with a statement that answers the question "So what?" you are teaching your senior manager how to listen to you. You are also answering Kevin Weiss's first question, "What is the objective of this presentation and what decisions have to be made?"

2. How long do you have for the presentation?

My hope is that you are never expected to talk for more than fifteen minutes, with another five to ten minutes for questions. Although we are talking about presenting to senior managers, they are also human beings, and human beings have limited attention spans. Assume everyone in your audience has attention deficit disorder and lean toward a shorter presentation rather than a longer one. No one has ever gotten fired for saving a senior manager some time.

3. What kind of visual support will you need?

As mentioned in the last chapter, research says that 85 percent of all information stored in the human brain comes through the eye. The eye is our primary sense. Its function is to scan for news. What kind of news? Any kind. If a mouse ran across the floor, where would your eye go? To the mouse, right? And so would the eye of everyone in your audience. Not 90 percent or 99 percent but 100 percent of sighted humanity would react the same way. It's the way we are made.

So why not use this piece of information to your advantage? Accept the fact that if you are making a presentation and there is nothing visually interesting up there, the eyes of the audience will wander. And when the eye wanders, so does the brain. But you can take advantage of this idiosyncrasy of senior managers and the rest of humanity by jazzing up your presentation with interesting visuals. Feed the eye of your listeners and you feed their brains. They will be impressed with you and your presentation.

The kind of visuals you will use will depend on what you have available to you and the size of your audience. Software such as PowerPoint can be very helpful to put information into graph and chart form, which will help the listener conceptualize, and therefore remember, the points you make.

Use a projector. Do this even with an audience of one, because if your visuals are bigger than life, you become bigger than life.

You Are the Most Important Visual!

If possible, stand while you give your presentation. When you do, there is more of you to see, which is automatically more visually stimulating and more memorable. You will also speak louder if you stand. And louder is better. Three out of four presenters speak too softly. When volume is down, the excitement is down. When excitement is down, you and your presentation become less interesting. And less interesting is a synonym for forgettable!

If you are in a large room where you are forced to be fifteen to twenty feet away from the audience, use a lavaliere mike - the kind that loops around your collar or tacks to your lapel and leaves your hands free. Don't ever risk your listeners saying, "Speak up!" or "We can't hear you!" Your words are fragile instruments that need the power of your voice and your energy in order to come alive.

Don't Expect Miracles from a Microphone

Only you can bring passion to your presentation. Don't expect the microphone to make you more interesting. It won't. As a matter of fact, don't expect the mike to perform any magic at all. It will make you louder. Period. If you are dull, a microphone enlarges the dull. If you are passionate, a mike will enlarge the passion.

You must speak as forcefully with a mike as without one. The forcefulness of your voice colors the language you use and gives it greater meaning. The greater the volume (within a reasonable boundary of course), the greater the intonation, the greater the inflection, and the greater the nuances you will be able to convey.

Dress the Part

If your office dress is business casual, make sure you err on the side of business versus casual. This gives the impression that you are more serious and committed to your work. As my grandmother used to say to my father when he was an adolescent, "Son, you need to make sure your clothes are clean and pressed when you go to work. Other people can't see inside you, as I can, to know how beautiful and smart you really are."

For the most part, senior management can't see inside us to see how beautiful and smart we are either. They need to see us demonstrate it on the outside. So let's look at the tools we have to use. In Chapter 2, we talked about voice, dress, and stance. Our two other tools are the visual words we use and the actual visual images that support our presentation.

Use Visual Words and Phrases in Your Presentation

One of my favorite bumper stickers says, "Visualize whirled peas." I love it. It asks you to put in a picture something that one would rarely think about: little green round things whirling around in a kind of cyclone effect.

That is only half the picture. The other half is much harder to visualize: world peace. Yet every one of us can come up with some picture of how we might represent that concept.

The bumper sticker works. It causes us to change words into a picture, a concept. We remember concepts, and therefore I remember that bumper sticker.

Use Visual Aids

Use analogies, charts, and pictures with word messages under them. Use three colors on your visuals. There are three things that attract the eye: action, color, and exaggeration. You can remember those three with the acronym ACE. Your body is the action, the visual has the color, and your vocal emphasis and gestures are the exaggeration. Those elements are powerful tools. Use them to make your talk interesting and compelling.

4. Where will you be giving your presentation?

Location, location, location. You've heard that from realtors, now you'll hear it as it relates to a presentation. The location makes a difference. If you can adjust the location where you will be doing the presentation, you want a room:

If you are setting up the meeting, by all means do it on home turf or turf that makes you comfortable. If the location helps increase your self-confidence, it'll show through in your presentation. It also reduces the chances the senior manager will be distracted by phone messages or personal interruptions.

5. Who will be in the audience?

Make sure you are very clear on why each of the attendees is there. If you are not sure, ask beforehand. You want to fulfill each person's needs and expectations and you can't accomplish that without knowing who will be there and why. It sometimes happens that senior managers invite juniors from their departments in order to increase their exposure and experience.

You have every right to know who is going to attend so that you can personalize your presentation, as necessary, and greet these people warmly when they arrive.

Formatting Your Presentation

Your presentation up the management chain will most likely have one or more of the following purposes: to exchange information, suggest action to be taken based on the information, or to get approval. The viewpoint format will help you organize your presentation to work best for the listener. Your goal, no matter what the subject, should be to ask for action.

Knowledge is not power until it is turned into action.

- Aristotle

It's not the knowledge but the action that creates the power. Let's look at an example most of us can relate to. Ask a group of twenty people, "By a show of hands, how many of you are heavier than you want to be and would like to lose weight?" The statistics say 85 percent of those people (sixteen or seventeen of the twenty) will raise their hands. Yes, they would like to lose weight.

Now ask, "How many of you feel you have the knowledge - you know what you must do to lose weight?" Of that group, nine out of ten will say that they know what to do.

Only Action Has Value

Then ask the clincher question. "How many of you are doing it - doing what it takes to lose weight?" You'll see only a few hands raised. So we can kick ourselves all we want for being human, but the facts are all around us. Knowledge doesn't do much good until action takes place.

How does this relate to a presentation up the management chain? Often we will be presenting the latest findings, as well as a viewpoint on a project, called a talk to inform. Theoretically, only the information is important. But is that so? Is our job over when we lay out the information? Or is it incumbent on us to suggest an action, a next step?

If we put ourselves in management's shoes the answer is easy. We are the experts or we wouldn't be presenting to this august body. And if we are the experts, we should have a suggestion or recommendation as to what action is required. In reality, that is the conclusion to the presentation. If we leave it out we haven't given them their money's worth.

Information alone does nothing for you and it does nothing for them. Senior management will be waiting to hear what that information means to the organization and what action needs to be taken as a result. So bring it full circle. Suggest action or recommend the next steps that should be taken.

The Viewpoint Presentation Format

  1. Subject/Background

  2. Viewpoint

  3. Importance

  4. Evidence

  5. Summary of Viewpoint and Importance

  6. Action or Next Steps

  7. Questions and Discussion

Here is how to structure a viewpoint presentation. The format is organized on a logical basis and is consistent with how people listen best.

1. Subject/Background

This is what you are going to be talking about. State it clearly and succinctly so that everyone is on the same page. Your subject could be an issue or a concern that surrounds a policy, practice, or belief that is disputed or challenged. It should take less than a minute of your presentation time to present your subject. If you are using visual aids, the subject should have its own visual. By way of example, let's say the subject is: "A report about the declining service level this past month in our phone service unit, and our plans for improving it."

The Background is past information that helps put what you are saying into perspective. If last month you changed the scheduling of your phone service reps to better accommodate call volume changes, you might also remind your audience why you did that, what the existing service levels were, and what the call volume was. The background provides context that will help your listener interpret the new information you are about to give them. This would also have a separate visual.

2. Viewpoint

The Viewpoint is a one-sentence statement of your point-of-view on the subject. In the phone center example, the viewpoint might be that, "I believe we can reduce turnover and therefore increase service levels by hiring additional workers for the hours between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., which is our high volume time period."

3. Importance

The Importance supports your Viewpoint and relates directly to timing. State how your Viewpoint improves the audience's understanding of the issue, as it exists now. Also state how that understanding can enable the company to act in a beneficial way. In our phone center example, this might be projections for reduced staff turnover, increased service levels, and money saved as a result of the reduction in turnover.

4. Evidence

Evidence builds credibility. Your Evidence should show that your Viewpoint is based on a solid understanding of the issue. You demonstrate that your Viewpoint is fair, takes into account the facts, is beneficial to society, and so on. Here is where we might use statistics or an analogy that supports our Viewpoint, or give examples of what success might look like. Use graphs, analogies, even photographs. The purpose of all Evidence is to help dramatize the correctness of your Viewpoint.

5. Summary of Viewpoint and Importance

The Summary should be simple and short. You are not repleading your case. You are merely restating your premise so that the picture is clear. It reinforces the essential story line of the presentation just before you introduce the action step.

6. Action or Next Steps

Here is where you ask for the commitment you need from the senior managers or state the Next Steps that you feel are indicated. In some cases it might simply be gaining concurrence or consensus. But usually what you will be asking for is formal approval authorizing you to move forward.

In the call center example, you would want agreement by the senior managers that the company could, indeed, reduce turnover and increase service levels by hiring additional people for the high volume 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. period. You would then ask for authorization to set that plan in motion.

7. Questions and Discussion

Be sure to include discussion time. You want reactions. You want questions. You need your senior managers' involvement. Obviously, you need authorization to go further, too, and it will never happen as a result of the presentation alone. The question-and-answer (Q&A) session is where senior managers get their arms around the subject. They test you with questions - some easy, some challenging. Here's where preparation pays dividends. Spend some time with your cohorts beforehand, predicting what questions might be raised and how you might handle them. Bring supporting material if indicated. You are the expert, so have your facts available.

Ultimately they will agree to go forward because of these factors:

Key Learnings for Presenting Up the Management Chain



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