I just pitched a project to the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company. This is what I learned.
My boss and I have been chatting about programming for 2020 pretty extensively as of late. One particular program floated to the surface and he asked me to put together a deck to present it to our CEO.
I immediately panicked. Why? I very rarely give formal presentations in my role. Let alone to our CEO. It was def way outside of my comfort zone.
But, when your VP asks for a presentation, you obviously put together a presentation. And our CEO is amazing. He’s brilliant and kind and just a wonderful human in general. But the thought of presenting to him, being that he’s the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, was still terrifying.
I wanted to share my process and honest, gory details about the experience in case it may help other folks pitching ideas for projects and programs in the future.
TL;DR: In talking to others in our industry I’d say a solid 75% of the people I spoke to felt under qualified and uncomfortable when they they stepped up and wound up making an impact. It’s not just you, I promise. Push past those feelings and go for it.
Presentation Prep Process
- Grab a pencil and notebook and jot down an outline of your high level ideas.
I use a cheap grid notebook because then my ideas don’t seem as precious and permanent. I can scribble all over the place, cross things out, and write upside down without experiencing any angst.
- Move to Freehand and make a lo-fi mock up of your slide plans.
I found this incredibly helpful in organizing my thoughts. Again, nothing fancy, I just some framed out high level ideas in an order that made sense.
- Pick a random preso template to start laying things out.
I used to start designing decks from the ground up immediately after outlining high level ideas. I found that instead of focusing on content, I immediately got bogged down in designing the slides. Starting with a template that you’re not going to actually use helps a ton with figuring out content flow and where you’ll need charts and graphics to support your content. Internally, we call first swipes the “bad version” which you’ll follow with a cleaner version once the main thoughts are solidified. It’s not the final product, it’s a rough start to get your thoughts across.
- Once your presentation is laid out, THEN start designing your final deck.
If your company doesn’t have stock photos or icon libraries available, I’m a huge fan of Unsplash for high quality free photos and The Noun Project for an enormous library of beautiful free icons. Obviously any time you present it’s a reflection of who you are as a professional, so you want to polish the daylights out of your work. (In this case since it was for my CEO I attempted to polish the daylights and the nightlights out of it!) But if you suffer from perfectionist tendencies, don’t get sucked under by the polishing. Get it to a point that you feel pretty good about it and move onto step 5.
- Ask for feedback.
I asked me VP if he had time to review the deck with me, and he was all for it. We ran through the preso and he gave me feedback. If your boss is bogged down and doesn’t have time, or if you don’t HAVE a boss to review with, ask trusted friends for help. Our community is packed with people who are willing to hop in and take a few minutes to provide feedback when asked. “Design Twitter” is a great place to start. (Be sure to adequately express your gratitude when people do take time out to assist. And if things go well, followup with them to let them know and give a second round of thanks!) If you don’t feel comfortable asking folks in the industry, ask friends and family to give feedback. People don’t necessarily need to fully understand your content to give feedback on your presentation.
Once you’ve got your feedback, jump in and iterate. You don’t have to change every aspect based on the feedback you receive (in my case I totally did because my VP works extremely closely with my CEO and had excellent feedback), but sift through it and iterate based on the feedback that makes sense, that you feel will really improve your presentation.
- Practice. But don’t freak yourself out.
I’m extremely passionate about the project I was presenting which helped me overcome some of the freak out vibes, but I still ran through the presentation repeatedly with my pups. (They know more about the design and UX industries than 99% of the humans on earth at this point. They’re a great audience.) Get a handle on your pacing, and prepare to go MUCH faster when you’re presenting live. Nervousness tends to equate to speed talking. Add a little fluff content if you need to fill a set time period before shifting to Q&A. You can always skip those slides if you do run short on time. Also, destroy all of the “ums”. Years ago I did a team presentation with a friend in the audience, and she made tick marks of all the times I said “um”. It was a mortifying number of times and I’ve been on an anti “um” crusade ever since. Record yourself presenting (using your phone is fine) to see where you need to improve. It’s funny how vastly different a presentation looks, than how it feels. Fix the things you ID as issues.
- Get adequate sleep the night before you present. And don’t drink 3 shots of espresso if you didn’t get enough sleep.
So… I couldn’t sleep the night before I presented. I was way too excited/stressed. I made the tragic mistake of downing 3 shots of espresso when I got up to counteract the lack of sleep. I highly recommend NOT doing that. I was jittery and twitchy all morning leading up to the afternoon meeting, which added to my nerves instead of detracting from them.
- Take a deep breath and do it up.
My VP and the CEO hopped in and I did my best to hide how completely freaked out I was when I was presenting. I kept an eye on my pacing, and focused on avoiding “ums”. When I got done, I was SO FRUSTRATED with myself. I’d felt prepared, and planned and prepped, but I STILL felt myself ramble partway through, and stumble on some words. The response to the presentation was good though. The high level concept of the program I’m so passionate about was approved, with feedback on how to restructure the progression and metrics. I’m so pumped! I was asked to present a new iteration including the feedback to the CEO, CMO and Chief of Staff the following week.
- Ask for feedback from someone you know will be honest with you.
After the meeting ended, I immediately reached out to my VP to apologize for rambling and stumbling around midway through. I was so frustrated that even after all the prep leading up, I still ran into trouble spots. He told me that he had no idea what I was talking about, and that it had actually gone extremely well. I mentioned the specific areas where I felt like I’d crashed and burned, and he said that honestly I was being way too hard on myself about something that didn’t actually happen. It turns out, being a perfectionist makes evaluating your own presentation performance impossible. My VP is honest, and I know that if he had agreed that I’d jacked it up terribly he would have told me and given me feedback. Most people who present tell you to just own your work and feel confident and be proud of yourself no matter what happens. But I’m not at that point as a presenter. It’s still alien, and maybe someday I’ll hit that point, but as of now I need as much candid feedback as I can get. And if you tend to err on the side of perfectionism, honest feedback is especially your friend. If things DID go as badly as you feel they did, getting that feedback will make it a learning experience, and you’ll have specific areas to focus on and improve as a result. If things did go well and your perfectionism is distorting your view of the experience, feedback is helpful for knocking you out of your self deprecating spiral. Always, always ask for feedback when you present. It’s a win/win.
- It’s possible to appear confident even when you’re actually losing it and want to curl up in the fetal position under a desk.
I think one of the biggest takeaways I learned from the experience is that even if you feel like you’re under-qualified to present, you can still appear confident and get your ideas across. This was an epiphany moment for me for sure. I didn’t go into this feeling like I could take on the world. I went into this feeling completely freaked out. But it still happened, and the project is moving forward. Don’t give up just because the thought of presenting is scary for you. Take what you’re passionate about and present it to the powers that be if you’re given the opportunity. You may be able to create the change that you want to see by stepping up and going for it, even when you don’t feel like you are the most qualified person to be pushing the idea forward. In talking to others in our industry I’d say a solid 75% of the people I spoke to felt under qualified and uncomfortable when they they stepped up and wound up making an impact. It’s not just you, I promise. Push past those feelings and go for it.
Whether your presentation went terribly or well, you got through it and learned something. Take a minute to pat yourself on the back for surviving the experience, and reflect on what you learned about the process and yourself. Taking that time for self reflection will pay off in spades when you have to tackle your next presentation.
To sum things up, when you have to give a big presentation, don’t get overwhelmed and panic. Take a deep breath, and tackle it one step at a time. You don’t need to be a professional presenter to pitch an idea to the CEO of a multibillion-dollar company, or an angel investor, or a VC firm. You just need to well prepared. You’ve got this! 🙌