In my 24-year corporate career and now as an executive coach, speaker and advisor, I’ve come to see there are two kinds of people: those who want the high-level answer and those who want the detailed explanation.

As long as you know your audience, you’ll be fine. The trouble comes when you give the detailed explanation to the ones who want the high-level answer or vice versa.

Like the time I was asked to present my work in a senior client meeting. I was deep into describing the “nuts and bolts” of the project when my skip level boss interrupted to say, “what May means to say is…” He proceeded to summarize my section beautifully in less than a minute.

While presenting, I’d been too nervous to notice the clients’ eyes glazing over. But I couldn’t help but notice their relief when my skip level boss jumped in. He had rescued the client, saved me from further embarrassment and role modeled the way to talk to senior managers in a meeting.

So what’s the best way to present to senior executives?

Here are 3 points to keep in mind when you have to communicate with senior executives:

  • Start with the main point
  • Use the Rule of 3
  • Less is more

Let’s start with the first point.

Start with the main point

Senior executives are busy. So instead of a long explanation, get to the point – the main point – and don’t keep them waiting.

I’ve found the best place to start is with the conclusion along with three key supporting points (more on this in a moment). Then pause. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.

As you’re presenting, focus on the strategic impact and outcomes. And tying it into the bigger picture strategy is a plus.

That takes us to the second point.

Use the Rule of 3

I learned the Rule of 3 in my summer job in consulting and it’s been a game-changer when it comes to communicating, especially with senior executives.

The Rule of 3 simply means presenting ideas in groups of three whether that’s three bullet points on a slide or three points you make when speaking. This helps make your presentation more memorable and ultimately more persuasive.

It’s based on research that has shown the human brain can only retain three ideas at the same time, and there’s plenty of evidence that people pay attention to groupings of three (e.g., “good, better, best”, “beginning, middle, end”, “The 3 Musketeers”, “3 primary colors”).

So when you’re making those supporting points after stating the conclusion, it’s best to have three of them.

If you find yourself with 10 points to make, see if you can group everything into three main categories. That will help you shift from presenting a forgettable “laundry list” to three strategic points you can communicate crisply and with confidence.

Which brings us to the third point.

With senior executives, less is more

That’s because senior executives tend to be strapped for time. They’re under pressure and have big responsibilities. This can make them impatient if they feel you’re wasting their time.

They don’t want to know everything you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked. So make sure you focus on the matter at hand and share the relevant information needed to move things forward.

Along these lines, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell had a rule of thumb for how much information is needed to make decisions. He called it the 40-70 rule:

You need 40 to 70% of the information to make a decision. If you have less than 40%, you’re likely to make a bad choice. If you wait to get more than 70% of the information, the opportunity is likely to have passed you by.

So don’t feel you have to provide 100% of the information. Be strategic and show you understand what’s important by leaving out the details that don’t make a difference.

But what if your senior executive is interested in the detailed thought process?

There are exceptions to every rule, which means you may find senior executives who are skeptical about hearing conclusions before the evidence and prefer having the details right up front.

For example, when I used the “conclusion first” approach with senior academics, they became so skeptical that I had to go back and start with the background and go through the detailed thought process from the beginning.

So with people who are highly analytical and trained to be skeptics, you may be better off explaining the background and context, the things you considered and tried, then finally end with the conclusion.

Presenting effectively is all about knowing your audience

And when in doubt, remember that most senior business executives want you to be concise.

So when you have to present to senior executives, remember these three points:

  • Start with the main point – senior executives are busy and want to hear the “bottom line” conclusion, don’t make them wait
  • Use the rule of 3 – it’s an effective way to share the rationale for your conclusion crisply and succinctly
  • Less is more – no need to share all the details or how hard you worked on it

Which of these points will most help you present powerfully in your next meeting with senior executives?

Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you.

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