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How to Sell Data and Analytics to Executives - Part III: Deliver a Winning Presentation

Business team delivering a data strategy presentation to executives

Read - How to Sell Data Analytics to Executives - Part I: Partner with the Business

Read - How to Sell Data Analytics to Executives - Part II: Align with the Business

The first two articles in this series focused on laying the groundwork for developing a data strategy that business executives will endorse and fund. This preparatory work involves learning how to partner with business executives and identify and align with their needs. This final article shows how to make good on this work by delivering an effective presentation that wins executive approval for your plan. 

There are three steps to creating a winning executive presentation: 1) prepare for the meeting 2) create the presentation deck and 3) deliver the presentation.  Although these steps seem quite straightforward, there are techniques you need to apply to maximize your chances of success. Let’s review each. 

1. Prepare for the Meeting

Scheduling. To prepare for the big presentation, you first have to schedule it. This is easier said than done since executives are busy and their schedules can change without notice. Ideally, you schedule a stand-alone meeting where your presentation is the only topic for discussion. However, this makes it easier for executives to cancel at the last minute. So, a safer option is to add the presentation to a regularly scheduled strategic or operational review meeting. 

Timing. The time allocated for the meeting should be proportional to the money and resources you’re requesting. If your budget request is small by comparison to other information technology (IT) projects, then schedule 30 minutes. If it’s a larger budget request with sizable staffing changes, schedule an hour. 

Socialize and refine your request. Most importantly, before you deliver the presentation, socialize your findings to individual members of the executive team, starting with your sponsor (or boss) to get feedback. This will enable you to gauge sentiment, identify objections, and make adjustments before the final presentation. The hard work of selling to executives happens well before the final presentation. That meeting simply ratifies what is already known and (hopefully) informally approved.


The hard work of selling to executives happens well before the final presentation.


Send the deck in advance. Make sure to send your slide deck to participants 2-3 days in advance so they can examine the proposal and ask thoughtful questions during the meeting. The best presentations are highly interactive—you want to encourage executives to ask as many questions as possible. That’s how they become comfortable with your proposal, assuming you have good answers. 

Put the “ask” upfront. Don’t worry if you don’t get past the first two or three slides in your deck. This is usually a good sign. Of course, this makes it imperative you put your “ask” upfront along with key supporting facts so it’s clear what they need to decide. 

2. Create the Deck

Slide Design. Once you’ve socialized and refined your proposal, then it’s time to create the final slide deck. Most of us know best practices when designing slides but we often forget to apply them in the final rush. Here’s a quick checklist of best practices for designing presentation slides: 

  1. Template. Use the company’s official template slide template, not a consultant’s template or an outdated template. 

  2. Avoid overload. Don’t overload your slides with too much text or dense visuals. Unlike reports, slides are not meant to be read or analyzed. They are aids to support a human narrator.

  3. Use action titles. Create a title for each slide that describes the key takeaway or action. Don’t just summarize the content; use the title to describe what needs to be done. 

  4. Set context. Don’t assume they know (or care) as much about this project as you do. Explain its origins, their initial endorsement, and work you’ve done to reach this point. 

  5. Frame the request. Present your request upfront, then work backwards to justify it, then finish by summarizing your request and key supporting points. 

  6. Tell a story. Like a good novel or movie, your deck should tell a story. Establish the problem, describe its costs, and show how your proposal rescues the company from pending disaster. 

Tailor the story. It’s important to tailor the story to who is in the room. Executives need to understand how your proposal aligns with big-picture changes and keeps them ahead of the competition. Budget approvers need to understand how the proposal fixes problems and its return on investment. Practitioners need to know how it’s going to work. 

Before presenting to executives, read the article, “The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen” by Andy Raskin. Although focused on selling software, the article provides wonderful advice for selling to executives based on a real-life example. According to Raskin, the ideal executive presentation follows this narrative flow: 

  1. Name a big, relevant change in the world. Rather than start by describing your plan or the problem, describe a major shift sweeping across industry. In our case, maybe it’s “Digital Transformation” or the “Intelligence Economy”. Then describe the evolution of this change in major epochs. For instance, I have a slide called the “Three Eras of Intelligence” that describes the evolution of data and analytics from business intelligence, to self-service intelligence to artificial intelligence. (Feel free to download and use this slide.) 

  1. Show there’ll be winners and losers. You then have to show how adapting to this change leads to positive outcomes, while ignoring it leads to negative ones. Cite examples of both winners and losers to cement your point. Then ask, “What’s the common thread among the winners?” In our domain, for example, winners have implemented a data strategy and roadmap that enabled them to create a culture of analytics. 

  2. Create a vision of the promised land.  At this point, it’s easy to dive into the details of your proposal, but resist doing so. It’s better to describe the future state when your organization has implemented the plan. Describe key business strategies that your proposal will enable, such as customer 360 or supply chain modernization. Explain how it will help business analysts work more productively and front-line operators work more efficiently.

  3. Wave the magic wand. Then show how your strategy makes these things possible. Describe obstacles and how your plan addresses them. Summarize key initiatives in five or so high-level recommendations. Then, create a three-year roadmap that shows activities, costs, and deliverables for each of the recommendations that serve as swim lanes on the roadmap. Create a theme for each year. (See figure 1.)

  4. Provide proof. Finally, describe examples where you’ve already done these things to allay their aversion to risk. If you’re using a consultant, provide a list of past clients who have used the consultant to deliver a similar data strategy. Or if you’ve done the work, cite your past experience at other companies. 

Figure 1. Swim Lane Roadmap

Since some executives in the room will also be budget-holders, so you may want to continue the narrative to focus on problems, costs, solutions, and ROI. The key to convincing both audiences is to show where in the roadmap you’ll be addressing their needs. A simple subject-area roadmap often helps. (See figure 2.) 

Figure 2. Subject-Area Roadmap

Here, for example, a sales executive sees that their core use cases will be delivered in Q3 and Q4 of 2021.  Use a more detailed roadmap to show costs, resources, and savings. (See “A Data Strategy Guidebook: What Every Executive Needs to Know” or contact Eckerson Group to see sample roadmaps.) 

3. Deliver the Presentation 

If you’ve done everything right and laid the groundwork for your plan, the final presentation provides a formal stamp of approval. Of course, there are ways to screw up, but these are mostly self-inflicted. Here are a couple of pointers to ensure your hard work does not go unrewarded. 

  1. Have the business present. Your story is best told by the businessperson who will be a primary recipient of the plan. At the very least, get one or more of your primary stakeholders to present their perspectives on how your plan helps them achieve their strategic objectives and why they are eager to work with the data and analytics team. 

  2. Be confident. If you don’t come across as confident and competent, the executives might question whether you are either. Confidence comes from deep knowledge of what you are presenting and familiarity with the slides.

  3. Mirror their style. Psychologists say we resonate better with people if we mirror their language and behavior, including manner of speaking, body language, and way of dressing. If the group is informal and jocular, be the same without going overboard. If they are formal and reserved, look and act the part. 

  4. Be succinct. Less is more. Pare back your presentation until it’s less than 10 slides. Use an appendix, if necessary, for detail. And when speaking, don’t run on at the mouth: make sure you GTTFP. (Get to the freaking point).

  5. Change the tempo. Research shows that people become saturated with information within 10 minutes, so it’s best to frequently change the tempo and format of your presentation. For example, at Apple Computer, no presenter speaks for more than 10 minutes. They use minimal slides and pause frequently. 

Summary 

Presenting to executives is like painting: the key is preparation. Painters spend 80% of their time preparing a surface for paint, and 20% of the time painting. When selling to executives, the key is to first understand their goals, drivers, and challenges, then build rapport with them, and finally socialize your plan in advance. When you’ve done the upfront work, the final presentation confirms what executives have already reviewed and informally approved. 

Wayne Eckerson

Wayne Eckerson is an internationally recognized thought leader in the business intelligence and analytics field. He is a sought-after consultant and noted speaker who thinks critically, writes clearly and presents...

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