When it comes to giving persuasive presentations to senior executives, never underestimate what you can accomplish in the meeting before the meeting.
Imagine the following scenario: You’ve finally snagged a spot on the agenda of an important leadership meeting to present your “big idea” to executive management. You’ve spent days reviewing your data, reconfiguring your PowerPoint, and refining your recommendations.
The presentation goes really well. You make eye contact with the execs, cater to each one’s decision-making style, and even use powerfully persuasive words like “evidently.” In your mind, you knocked this one out of the park.
But none of this matters: Their decision doesn’t go your way.
Later in the day, reflecting upon what happened, it occurs to you: They’d made up their minds long before hearing you out. At some moment in time after the meeting agenda was sent out (but before you picked up the slide clicker), the meeting outcome was predetermined by the decision-makers—and you weren’t included.
If the real decisions are being made before the meeting, it might not be enough to present your case and attempt to win hearts and minds in the boardroom.
Leadership guru John Maxwell has written that “the secret to a good meeting is the meeting before the meeting.”
In his book, Leadership Gold, Maxwell recounts the advice of a mentor who told him to figure out in advance which key influencers were going to be in any given meeting and meet with them beforehand, either individually or in groups. Maxwell and others use the phrase “the meeting before the meeting” to refer to the process of checking in with these key players prior to the larger meeting to gain their buy-in, develop trust, and avoid being blindsided later on.
In a webinar years ago, I interviewed the head of corporate communications for a medical devices company. Her chosen topic of expertise was a skill that many aspiring influencers have yet to develop: how to work effectively with C-suite executives.
“I can’t tell you the number of times when I’ve seen people present to our senior leadership team,” she said, “and it’s the first time anyone in that room is ever hearing about what it is that you’re trying to convince them to do.”
According to the communications leader, one of the often unspoken rules for working effectively with senior leaders is to avoid surprises—and one great way to achieve this is to take charge of the meeting before the meeting. “Ask your executives for 15 minutes of time before the big meeting,” she recommended. “You can preview your thoughts and ideas and hear what concerns they have. Make them part of the process so that by the time the big meeting comes, they feel like they have a stake in it.”
While it may seem like an informal interaction, don’t take an off-the-cuff approach; I would recommend preparing as diligently for this 15-minute pre-meeting meeting as you would for the main event.
Your goal in each of these “mini-meetings” is to test your hypothesis with each executive and bring to the surface any concerns and objections he or she may have in order to reduce the likelihood that your presentation will be derailed. Ultimately, your aim is to line each leader up as your advocate—before the main meeting takes place.
As recommended by the corporate communications guru, here are some questions to pose to your potential advocates about your idea:
- Does this idea make sense to you?
- Do you agree with it?
- Is this a smart way for us to be investing our time and money?
- Does this align with the initiatives in your area? If not, why?
- And if it does, will you back me up when I deliver the presentation?
If the answer is “no,” it’s far better that you know now while you still have a chance to change direction and correct course before the big meeting.
After having those conversations, you might not have enlisted 100% of the key decision-makers as advocates, but by pre-selling your ideas before the big meeting, you’ll at least know who your supporters are. You’ll also know who’s neutral, who is skeptical, who the potential detractors might be, and where they stand on the issue. By mastering the meeting before the meeting and pre-selling your ideas, you can cater to all points of view in your final presentation—and then nail it.