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Speaking Up: Surviving Executive Presentations

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If you are in middle management, to get anything done you must present your ideas to decision makers, and those presentations can be brutal. The stakes are high—one presentation can make or break a career—but the rules are utterly unclear. Tactics and techniques that work well with peers, subordinates, and immediate supervisors can actually work against you when presenting up the chain.

Speaking Up is an indispensable resource for anyone who needs to know how to present to those at the highest levels. Psychologist and coach Frederick Gilbert offers revelatory insights into the minds of the men and women at the top—information that is crucial to understanding what they’re looking for from presenters. Based on ten years of research and hundreds of interviews, Speaking Up features extensive comments from executives explaining exactly what they want and don’t want in a presentation.

This Enhanced Edition has 48 minutes of video footage excerpted from the Speaking Up Virtual Workshop, an elite online training course that typically costs $395. The videos in this book show real-life CEOs (not actors) heckling or otherwise impeding hapless presenters. The simulated experience of presenting to the C-Suite and encountering common problems is invaluable. It will help any presenter who needs to know what to expect—and how to prepare—for their next C-level presentation.

"There are two times when you are alone in this life: one is when you die, and the other is when you present to senior management."—Rick Wallace, CEO, KLA-Tencor
You can cut years off your leadership learning curve by applying these skills."--from the foreword by Scott McNealy, Founder band former CEO of Sun Microsystems and Chairman of Wayin

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19 Chapters

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1 Clueless


A presentation cannot make a career, but a presentation can undo a career.

—Bryan Lamkin

As a mid-level manager, you are accustomed to leading your own meetings. You may be a very successful leader with 30 or 300 people under you. In your quarterly off-site meetings with your entire team, your presentations are enthusiastically received. You are a respected and successful leader. Your career is on track. The problem is, when you walk into those quarterly review meetings with the C-level staff, all bets are off.

The stakes could not be higher. Your job, your project, and the jobs of those people who report to you hang in the balance every time you get up to present to senior leadership. This is make or break time. Many a boardroom has been bloodied by the carnage left in the wake of an unprepared speaker, clueless about the rules of the game. It happened to me.

I confidently walked into Dick Anderson’s spacious office at the Hewlett-Packard Computer Systems Division in Cupertino, California. I was manager of our quality publications and training programs. The year was 1982 and I was just two years into my business career. It was my first meeting with a real senior executive. I was accompanied by my boss, Ilene Birkwood, the functional manager of Quality Assurance, who reported to Dick, the general manager of the division of 3,000 people. Our meeting had been scheduled for 30 minutes, but ended abruptly in 15. We didn’t get what we wanted. In spite of my confidence, something had gone terribly wrong, and I didn’t know what it was, or why it happened.


2 Life at the Top


Executives are paid to be paranoid. Executives are territorial. Executives are impatient.

—Harold Fethe

Your success depends on getting through to C-level executives on their terms. Let’s be clear about this—presenting to C-levels (or other senior decision makers in your company) will simply be the most important presentations you will ever make in your entire life. Ever! In your entire life! Think about it. You probably will not go into politics or entertainment where you could be in front of huge audiences at say, the Democratic or Republican national conventions, or on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial speaking to hundreds of thousands of people. Nope. Probably not going to happen.

More likely

Yet your 45-minute presentation in the boardroom in front of a dozen people who are not there to be entertained or inspired could get your project approved, could get you promoted, and could make you a hero to your family and your team … or not.

The toughest audience you will ever face are high IQ, high self-esteem males. The research also shows that high IQ, high self-esteem females are only slightly more forgiving.1 Welcome to C-level land.


3 The Seven Deadly Challenges


For we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us …

—Joseph Campbell

In this chapter you will learn about seven presentation challenges that, if ignored, can run your presentation, and even your career, right into the ditch. Not knowing what these challenges are and how to handle them is like going into the jungle without a map, a compass, or a guide.

The situations we present here have brought even the best mid-level managers to their knees. Why? Because they weren’t prepared. For example, one of our clients went on a disastrous sales call with two unprepared colleagues:

We went to IBM with our senior executive and a technical guy. We were visiting the number-one guy under the CEO. We were taken up to the penthouse meeting room. The IBM exec entered through a side door. He sat down and chatted with us for a few minutes. Then he looked at the three of us and said, ‘So, what do you want from me?’ We started tripping all over ourselves. Nobody had an answer. In fact, the technical guy started looking at his phone as if he had a call! The executive left. We lost the sale.


4 Time Cut: A $30,000/Hour Investment


If after 30 minutes they’re on their third slide, they have no concept of time, and no respect for our time.

—Ned Barnholt

A lot is at stake when a presenter performs poorly in a top-level meeting. A valuable project may not get funding, a successful career can run off the tracks, and executives’ time can be wasted.

The productivity cost of poor meeting performance can be measured in dollars and cents. Lots of dollars and cents. If we consider the top five leaders of a mid-sized company (CEO, CFO, COO, CTO, CMO, etc), with, let’s say, $4 billion in revenue and calculate what it costs to put them into an hour-long meeting, the numbers are staggering. Their salaries, bonuses, stock options, and other perks can be determined from SEC public records. Our calculations indicate that having those five people in a decision meeting costs the shareholders more than $30,000 per hour! Assuming that this same group meets at least twice a week for hour-long meetings, the cost per year is $60,000/week × 52 weeks = $3.1M/year.


5 Disengaged Executives: It’s You or the Smartphones


Type A personalities have short attention spans. They get bored. So you’ve got to keep moving. Pace is as critical as content.

—Dan Warmenhoven

Julie Patel, Senior Director, Elan Pharmaceuticals, was just three minutes into her presentation when she noticed out of the corner of her eye that several executives were fiddling with their smartphones. She ignored it. She certainly had plenty else to worry about in this critical presentation. She thought to herself, “Surely this will pass. They must see how important it is that we move ahead on this proposal.”

Things got worse. No one seemed to be paying attention as Julie continued, “Our leaders need this program in these tough economic times. We’re not able to compensate people appropriately.” The executives ignored her as they continued to text and talk on their phones.

Frustrated, Julie suddenly imagined pulling a hammer out of her briefcase and smashing all the executives’ smart-phones as she shouted, “Maybe now you’ll pay attention!”

Pure fantasy. It was all a dream.


6 Food Fights: You Are Not the Referee


The war between R&D and Sales &
Marketing was vivid and alive in every
discussion and every moment. The pot
shots, the digs, the opportunities to take
advantage or to prove a point among the
top executives—all this is very real

—Ginger Graham

Back in my high-tech corporate days representing Quality Assurance, I sat in meetings that included people from R&D and Sales & Marketing. The groups didn’t like each other. Someone would make a snide comment, then another. In several meetings, it escalated to shoving and chair throwing. Clearly something much deeper was going on here besides surface discussion about, say, delaying the release date of a new software upgrade. All this anger and resentment had the feeling of a schoolyard brawl. I knew people like this in junior high and high school.

For example, in high school there was a group of kids—mostly boys—who were in the math club. They were armed with slide rules on their belts (back in my day), wore glasses and didn’t have dates on Saturday night. Guess what happened to them? They got PhDs and ended up in corporate R&D departments.


7 Decision Maker Leaves: Reading the Room


You need to be cognizant of people’s eyeballs, all of them around the room.

—Steve Blank

If you’re starting to feel like you need to be a juggler to successfully present at the C-level, you’re not far off. And one of those balls you can’t lose track of, according to Steve Blank, is the ability to “understand when the context of the meeting has shifted around you and be able to move from ‘presentation mode’ into ‘process mode’.” Instead of focusing on content, you may need to take off your “presenter hat” and put on your “process hat.” That is, you stop to make sure that the way you are presenting your content is hitting the target. Presenters who can make this distinction will have a huge advantage at senior-level meetings.

Unfortunately, many presenters are so focused on their content that they don’t have the psychological bandwidth to be aware of what is going on in the room on an interpersonal level:

• Who is paying attention?

• Who is not?

• Who is taking it into the weeds?

• Who has time constraints?


8 Topic Change: Time to Improvise


I don’t know why we’re spending time on this when the fundamental problem is the product structure.

—Dan Warmenhoven

Presentations at the top level can change directions midstream. That’s not surprising considering who’s involved, what’s at stake, and the fact that they’re often more like guided discussions than structured lectures. What should you do when the executives want to address a different topic? You’ll find your answer in jazz. Yes, jazz. Like a jazz musician, your ability to improvise in the heat of the moment may be the difference between success and failure.

Eddie Harris

Jazz saxophone player, Eddie Harris (1934–1996), told me in a 1976 interview, “Jazz is a business. I have to read the audience. If I’m playing far out, and I see they want a ballad, I’ll change in the middle of the tune.” Business presenters should take their cue from Eddie Harris. Should topics switch in the middle of your presentation, be prepared to go with the flow.

When we think of improvisation, we think of jazz and comedy clubs. Improv comedy involves themes provided on the spur of the moment from the audience. Similarly, jazz improvisation occurs in the moment as the players “riff” off of each other. We don’t think of high-level business meetings being improvisational, or off the cuff. But, in fact, the most creative business solutions often evolve from improvisational interactions. Jazz metaphors are not uncommon in business:


9 Side Talk: Keeping Your Poise


Rickey and Suki, do the two of you have something you’d like to share with the rest of the group?

—Rick’s third grade teacher, her voice dripping with sarcasm in order to embarrass the two side talkers

Doesn’t it really bother you when a couple of executives begin having a sidebar conversation during your presentation? It’s something that’s not only distracting for you as the presenter, but it also distracts the rest of the people around the table. There are some ways to deal with this. Unless you’re actively trying to limit your career, however, direct confrontation is not one of them.

Andy Billings, VP, Electronic Arts
Side Talk:
“I lost my patience with them. We didn’t get the green light.”

Andy Billings is Vice President of Profitable Creativity (Organizational Effectiveness and Leadership Development), and has been with Electronic Arts for 14 years. He has a PhD in behavioral psychology with an emphasis in organizational change.

Andy’s presentation to the executives was a proposal to change the ways new products are developed to increase both creativity and profitability. He knew that it would be great for revenues, great for margins, and great for the company’s engineering talent. In short, it was a win-win-win.


10 The Energetic Discussion: Less Talking and More Listening


A person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider our problem, can change our whole outlook on the world.

—George Elton Mayo
Harvard Business School, 1926–1947

Sometimes your presentation can go so well that the executives are completely engaged. They are totally with you. Ideas are flying around. They are building on each other’s suggestions. We call this the “Energetic Discussion.” Your challenge is to listen well and not to miss anything.

Since most books on management and leadership stress the importance of listening, mid-level managers who attend our training sessions often believe they do it well. Not true. They are amazed at how poorly they listen when we get into exercises that teach this vital skill. Listening is not easy, yet it is central to facilitating a high-level conversation. Conversely, not listening because you’re so focused on your presentation can derail a successful career.

As a CEO, John Kispert noted:

I listen, 24/7. That’s my job. Nothing is more insulting or annoying to an executive than to ask a question and have the person provide the answer that’s in their head without even addressing what’s being asked because they never really heard the question.


11 Content + Facilitation + Listening + Improv = Success


Eighty percent of your success at the top level is your ability to facilitate the meeting. Only 20 percent is due to the content per se.

—Steve Kirsch

I don’t care much about style. I care more about content, and I particularly care about the interaction in a presentation.

—Audrey MacLean

The extremely successful and effective people we have introduced to you in Part II as our heroes are really not different from mid-level managers in most companies. In training over 10,000 people on these skill sets, we have learned a lot about the challenges facing mid-level people. Some have hopes of moving up to the C-level, others are happy where they are. Some have well-developed presentation skills, many do not. Some can facilitate meetings well, others are only focused on their content. There is a huge variation. One thing that’s consistent, though, is the thirst to learn the secrets of successful top-level presentations.

The biggest surprise for us has been how few people in the middle ranks know about these top-level communication skills. They know there is something very different at that level, but they’re not sure what it is. Greg Fant, Chief Marketing Officer, One Kings Lane, said that he had been looking for MBA programs that taught this strategic approach to upward communication so his people would be better prepared. He found none. Greg observed, “A skill that was missing in these programs was related to communication skills required in less formal, ‘small room’ meetings with execs, i.e., the ability to deliver concise, thoughtful information with clarity in a tight time window. That falls into the bucket of having ‘strong executive presence’—the area that often accelerates or slows an individual’s rise in a given organization.” (See Chapter 2.)


12 Public Speaking Unplugged


I sit through so damn many of these executive presentations. It is painful. There are two times when you are alone in life: one is when you die, and the other is when you present to senior management.

—Rick Wallace

As we’ve seen, C-level executives are very bright people living in high-stress, demanding environments with little job security and not much support. They can be abrupt and hard to please. Due to a “perfect storm” of personality variables, performance pressure, and environmental factors, top-level people are a very tough audience. Additionally, putting them in a room for a presentation costs the shareholders a lot of money. This is made even worse by the fact that more than half of the presentations they see are total failures. All this paints a dismal and scary picture for the aspiring presenter.

But wait! There’s hope.

First of all, let’s remember that the executives want you to do well. It is in the best interest of the company to have successful, informative presentations. Ned Barnholt advised, “They are not a bunch of wolves sitting around the table, but people just like you who are interested in what you have to say.” That goes a long way toward creating the right environment for a successful discussion. Secondly, they’ve told us what works. This is not rocket science. It’s very learnable. So let’s find out how to create a winning presentation.


13 Delivery Style


George Gleeson

Don’t make yourself the lead actor in this play. You’re not. Go in there and quickly, concisely deliver the information, answer questions, survive it, and get out.

—George Gleeson, Regional Sales Manager,
Enterprise Hardware, Oracle

When you deliver your “New Employee Orientation” or your “All Hands Meeting,” strong style is a must. You can even be charismatic. However, when you hit the C-level, the executives are just interested in getting business done, and are less interested in charisma. It’s not about how you deliver your proposal, but rather about the proposal itself.

Ned Barnholt reported seeing a particularly poor presenter who simply turned to the screen and read his slides to senior management at Agilent. “Content-wise it was a very interesting idea, and I’m willing to overlook the shortcomings of the presentation in order to focus on this opportunity.”

Ned Barnholt

Now let’s be clear, executives do not want a poor presenter. What they do want is excellent content—and oh, by the way, if the presenter is also a good speaker, that is a real plus. If your style needs an upgrade, a good place to start is with our Style Hierarchy.


14 I Really Did Give a Damn!


In Part II, you met our six mid-level executives: Todd Lutwak, Julie Patel, Brent Bloom, Sharon Black, Randi Feigin, and Andy Billings. You saw them come face-to-face with the Seven Deadly Challenges. You read the stories of how they got advice from senior executives, learned how to manage the challenges, and then succeeded in their presentations. Mastering the Speaking Up® strategies has made a difference in their lives and in the lives of people they work with. After their executive presentations, I sat down and interviewed each of them on video about the key skills they took away from the Speaking Up® training and how it has affected their careers and leadership skills.

Speaking Up® is to presentations what the Boy Scout motto is to life—Be Prepared. Too often speakers walk into a meeting with an agenda of what they want or need, not taking full account that there are other people (often more senior) that have a different agenda, timeframe, or expectations. A well-prepared presenter will have a greater understanding of this, and instead of having one approach will be prepared to present their material in a variety of ways. The question should never be, “Did I do a great presentation?” The question should be, “Did I get my point across and did I achieve my intended outcome?”


15 Parents, Mentors, and Role Models: Looking Over the Pickle Barrel


Who’s the teacher? Who’s the student?

—Leo McCarthy
Former California Lieutenant Governor

We’re all just links in a chain.

—Bob Dylan

Think back to your formative years: grammar school, high school, even college, and your first job. Who was there for you? Who saw the talent, the intelligence, the possibilities in you that you could not see in yourself? Does more than one person come to mind? An uncle or an aunt? A grandparent, a neighbor, or a teacher?

For Steve Blank, who grew up in New York City, the seeds that would lead to his achievements were sown by his immigrant parents:

They came over in steerage, and took the tour of New York Harbor under the Statue of Liberty. They came through Ellis Island and worked in sweatshops in the Lower East Side of New York. They dreamed of opening a grocery store. After working in the garment district for a decade, they wanted to work for themselves.

I guess you could say my parents did a start-up and were small business entrepreneurs. Rather than taking over the universe, they simply wanted to feed the family. They owned a little grocery store and their entire team was my two parents, and then my sister and me when we were old enough and could see over the pickle barrel. Then it was our turn.


16 Career Challenges


You, more than any other person, are responsible for the welfare of all. You have this collection of responsibilities that make you different than other people.

—Mark Leslie

Pressures come when you get to flying high and it changes your world so dramatically.

—Brenda Rhodes

How you handle it when things are going well doesn’t matter. It’s when things aren’t going well—that’s when it matters how you handle it.

—Rick Wallace

Being CEO is 100 percent of your life. Eighty percent of it is crap, but the other 20 percent is so much fun it makes it worth it. It has a life cost.

—Ginger Graham

Our executives “opened the kimono” when asked what advice they would give to those aspiring to top-level positions. They shared the reality of the ascent to power. They talked about the impact on their families and about the responsibility of running a major corporation. The bottom line of this chapter is: if you have your sights set on a senior leadership position in a Fortune 500 company, pursue it with your eyes wide open.


17 Career Advice


It’s not about the Porsche.

—Steve Blank

There is an old axiom that says we learn from our failures. A Harvard Business School study1 indicates this may not be the case. While the executives certainly had failures and made mistakes along the way, it would be more accurate to say that they learned from their successes and from their mentors, as well as from their failures.

Here they share some hard-won tips that you will find useful in managing your own career growth.

The key to success lies in doing what you love. Brenda Rhodes told me:

I speak a lot to younger people who are trying to find their careers. And the number one question they ask is, ‘Where’s the big money going to be in the next decade? What’s going to be hot?’ I answer, ‘What do you love? That’s what’s going to be hot.’

When I was a teenager, my mother used to take me around to the big homes in Saratoga. I’d ask, ‘What does that man do to get that house?’ She’d say, ‘That man made some sort of a disk thing, computer thing.’ I’d point to another house and ask, ‘What does that person do to get that house?’ She’d say, ‘He owned shoe stores.’ And so it went from house to house. I quickly put it together that maybe I could be successful doing just about anything, if I loved it.


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