The Parable of the Executive Presentation
“I’m at a loss,” Hank said quietly to a room full of board members. His hands trembled a bit as he spoke, and he gazed out the window as if to avoid eye contact.
“This is important. And I’m worried it’s going to be a disaster.”
It was the beginning of a new year, and The Important Company was in a pretty tough spot.
It wasn’t that The Important Company’s products were suddenly out of demand. No, the products were still selling well. The company was still a leader in an important space; in fact, they’d brought in over $3 billion in revenue over the last year, a feat that they’d deservedly celebrated.
And Hank was still a respected leader at the Important Company, the head of the entire department of Stuff. It was an important position.
But things had changed a lot in the past year, and the landscape promised to change even more in the next. The Important Company had been pushing hard in one direction for years. Now, a combination of new technology and new regulations was poised to drastically affect the way the company did business, especially in the Stuff department.
The Stuff department was set for a massive overhaul.
It was clear that priorities had to shift, and quickly. Everyone involved understood that the transition would not only be difficult – it would also be difficult to explain to the company’s employees. It would be hard to get buy-in after years of aligning expectations in a different way.
As head of the Stuff department, Hank had to be the one to communicate those changes to his team – and, from there, to the rest of the company.
That was the problem.
Lesson: Adapting to change doesn’t just require great execution – it requires great communication, too.
Shelly cleared her throat. She’d listened quietly as Hank had given his presentation to the board. As the Important Company’s Vice President for the past seven years, Shelly had worked with Hank for long enough to understand his skills and abilities. She knew firsthand that Hank was a passionate advocate for the company, a good leader, and an intelligent problem solver.
But she’d just witnessed him utterly bomb a test run of the presentation he was scheduled to give to the company in just two weeks. It had been so bad that she imagined the Stuff department was more likely to boo Hank from the podium or collectively fall asleep than to align with the new vision he was supposed to be promoting.
It had sounded like something between a botched apology and the directionless gibberish of a malfunctioning GPS.
“Hank,” said Shelly, “That was not good.”
Hank looked away, his gaze directed out the window.
“But I know you’re good at this job,” said Shelly. “What happened?”
“And how can we fix it?”
Lesson: Even intelligent, high-level executives can struggle to communicate well.
It had all started, as many poor presentations do, with PowerPoint.
When it became obvious that changes were going to be needed in the Stuff department and that Hank would need to be the one to communicate them, the board had spent time mulling over how to best make that happen.
The idea of hosting an off-site presentation had surfaced quickly. Employees used to the status quo, the thinking went, would be more open to change if it was presented in a fun, unfamiliar environment.
So, The Important Company booked two days in Disney World. It would be a time of refreshment and inspiration for the Stuff department, highlighted by Hank’s keynote presentation that would be live-streamed to the rest of the company.
Of course, with so much money invested in the event, The Important Company needed to have direct input into the content of the presentation – it had to get the entirety of the company message across. Accordingly, the board gave Hank a list of items to incorporate.
“It’s not too much,” said Kris, the CEO. “Just a few notes to make sure the message comes through.”
There were thirty-seven bullet points in total.
“Use PowerPoint,” said Kris. “It’ll help you to stay on track.”
Hank had taken a long look at the list and nodded. When Kris left, he slumped into his chair and sighed. Then he began creating a PowerPoint, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Lesson: Communicating well means thinking of the audience, not just of an agenda.
The communications coach sat up in her chair, a strange look on her face.
After flunking his test presentation, Hank had been assigned emergency assistance in the form of a communications coach. She was tasked with getting what Kris had described as “a train wreck” back on the tracks.
He’d just begun presenting for the coach when she’d held up a hand and asked him to stop. At the moment, she was staring at Hank with an expression that suggested she felt Kris’ description of a train wreck had been too kind.
“Hank,” she said, “You’re obviously an intelligent person. But this presentation is objectively miserable.” Hank nodded, looking miserable himself.
“Where is the disconnect?”
Hank considered the question. “Well, I don’t particularly enjoy giving presentations,” he said, “and especially not to the entire company on a live stream.”
“Also, I don’t really like what I have to say.”
His coach nodded. “I can tell,” she said. “Practice and training can help with the first thing. For the second, you’re going to have to help a bit, too.”
“What is it that you want to say? What is it that your audience should hear?”
Hank thought for a moment and then offered his thoughts. The communications coach nodded and smiled.
“Now we are on the right track! Let’s get to work.” Within 2 hours, they recreated Hank’s presentation to include an honest acknowledgement of where they were today and excitement about where they were going. They pared down the power points and focused on what his team needed to hear from their leader.
Hank left the coaching session with confidence and a fire in his gut.
Lesson: Be yourself.
The presentation was over.
Hank was backstage, the buzz of the Stuff department crowd still audible as he shook hands with members of The Important Company’s board.
Kris approached, beaming. “That was wonderful!” he gushed, shaking Hank’s hand. “I have to admit, Hank, I wasn’t sure how it would go. But you’ve really got your people excited for this – and the rest of the company, too. Well done!”
Shelly, relieved and happy, agreed. “What changed?” she asked. “You seemed worlds more confident onstage than you did two weeks ago in that boardroom.”
“What was the secret?”
“It was honesty, really. Just saying the things that needed to be said, and saying them in my own words.”
“There was a lot of information to cover. But I knew that our people in the Stuff department weren’t going to buy in unless they could tell that we meant what we were saying.”
“So, I wanted to honestly acknowledge the effort it would take from them – and let them know what The Important Company would be doing to support them, as tangibly as I could.”
Shelly considered that fact. “I guess what’s most important is to shape the message to the context. Seems like you told our company what they needed to hear. Those Stuff department people out there are definitely inspired.”
“The changes won’t be easy, but at least we’re all singing from the same songbook now,” she said.
Hank smiled. “I have a feeling that, even with all of the change, it’s going to be a good year for The Important Company.”
Lesson: Show empathy when it’s needed.
Be Like Hank
No, not every company is The Important Company. But, in 2018’s quickly shifting landscape every company deals with change – and communicating change well is incredibly important.
That principle transfers into every communication channel: presentations, meetings, and public interactions.
If you’re feeling like Hank – perhaps intimidated by the prospect of communicating change or perhaps intimidated by the prospect of communicating in general – don’t worry. There is help.
With training, anyone can learn the skills and techniques necessary to communicate well.
That’s important because communications is not a soft skill. It’s an essential part of a company’s success. And it can be learned and improved.
So, don’t let your communication skills hinder your company’s execution this year – or, worse, turn changes into a train wreck. To nail your next presentation, meeting, or year, get in touch with us.
Lesson: Communications training can help anyone become a better communicator.