I wrote before about the five questions you should be asking yourself before putting together a presentation. These questions should offer guidance on what you need to think about as you prepare your content, but they don’t offer a simple format to articulate that content well.

Over the last few years, I’ve spent a good amount of time presenting to our executive leadership team. A couple of years ago, one of these presentations was directly to our CEO. As I prepared for it, I spent dozens of hours, 50 different presentation styles and outlines, and many different pre-meetings to test out my template until I came around to this one. Since then, I’ve been using this as my guiding format to build the case for decisions makers. It’s also the format that runs in my head as I get a presentation where I need to make a call.

A critical step to think about throughout the format below is who’s your audience? Not all presentations meet the same requirements and not all audiences are the same. Think of who you’re presenting to and why they’re actually there before you approach any of the steps below.

Here is an overview:

  1. Start with the conclusion.
  2. What’s the problem you’re solving and why does it matter?
  3. What are we currently doing about this problem?
  4. What are our competitors or industry leaders doing?
  5. What’s your solution?
  6. What’s the cost of doing it?
  7. What’s the cost of inaction?
  8. What’s a high level execution plan?
  9. What’s your call to action? This is generally a repeat of #1.

Start with the conclusion

When I started presenting to executives, I would skip this step and start with describing the problem, the solution, and the execution plan. You think of your presentation like a Ted talk and start telling a story assuming you’ll keep your audience’s attention to the end. Here is the thing though, you don’t necessarily own the room like in a Ted talk. You’re there to articulate your point as soon as possible, as clear as possible, and to get a clear decision at the end of it. You don’t want to lead your executive leadership team to the conclusion, you want to present it and then explain why it matters to them. Many executives have little time or patience to follow through not knowing your end goal, especially that they know you have an end goal.

Be clear about why you’re there, what are you expecting from them, and what problem are you solving. That’s slide #1.

What’s the problem you’re solving and why does it matter?

Now that you’ve provided an overview of your conclusion including your ask, it’s time to dig deeper into the problem you’re trying to solve and why it matters.

How you describe the problem depends on the problem itself. However, make sure you’re considering the points of view of the audience you’re talking to. For example, if the problem you’re solving is a technical one, does your audience care about the technical details or are they interested in how that problem solves a business problem for them? Engineering leadership might care about the technical details, but business leaders might care about how that impacts the business.

The most important part of this section is to ensure that everyone in the room is now on the same page and has the same context they need to make a decision on the problem statement itself.

What are we currently doing about this problem?

If the answer is nothing, you can probably skip this. However, most of the time, companies are doing something, it’s just that it’s either not enough or not taking us in the right direction. You want to acknowledge the work done or in progress. If this is a problem at a high level enough to be discussed with the executive leadership, they’re probably aware, or want to be aware, of the efforts already happening there. They’d also want to know why that’s not enough.

Many times, it’s worth it to divide this into two simple sides: what are we doing well? And what can be either improved or needs to be done differently?

What are our competitors or industry leaders doing?

If we’re not the first to face this problem in our industry, which is likely, where do we stand? How does the work we’re doing at the moment match the work others in the industry are doing?

If we’re solving a problem that others are ahead in solving, sharing how they’re solving the problem provides credibility to your solution especially if you’ve learned their lessons and incorporated their learnings.

What’s the solution

Now is the time to present your solution. You’ve provided enough context on the problem itself and the way we’re approaching this problem so far and why that’s insufficient. You’ve also provided an overview of the competitive landscape. It’s time to provide a solution that addresses the point that have been leading up to here.

Note that the level of detail you’re providing here will depend on the audience you’re presenting to as well. There isn’t a single presentation that you’ll take around there is only a presentation format that you’ll keep.

What’s the cost?

Solutions cost money and resources. What are you asking for? You want to be clear and articulate about the overall cost of this solution. This is not just about money, it’s about the overall cost of time, possible change of direction, resourcing, etc.

The more details you can offer here the better. As with everything else, you want to tailor the cost to your audience. For example, if the total cost is distributed amongst multiple business units and you’re presenting to a single business unit, they’ll probably want to know the overall cost. However, they’d want to focus specifically on what they’re going to have to pay as part of the overall solution.

What’s the cost of inaction?

This is one of those aspects of a proposal that most people forget. The cost of inaction is generally different than the cost of the solution. This is basically a different format for a call to action.

If the problem is so important to solve and the solution is cost effective, there should be a clear understanding of what it costs the company to not do anything about the problem.

This doesn’t have to be a dollar amount, although it’d be helpful if it was represented in that format. It could be falling behind competitors, delivering a worse solution, worse productivity for internal teams, etc.

You’d want the cost of inaction to be compelling enough so that even if the full cost of the solution isn’t covered, the answer isn’t to simply move on without any solution at all.

What’s your high-level execution plan?

Like with everything else, the level of detail here will depend on your audience. That said, you’ll need to present a high-level execution plan. This is less about getting every single detail right and more about ensuring that you’ve thought through the plans needed to get this right.

Since you’ve presented a cost, the assumption is that the cost is dependent on some level of understanding of the problem itself and the steps it takes to solve it. Highlighting those plans is important to ensure you’re on the same page with the executive leadership team on what the details on the solutions are and what expectations are you putting on you or your team to deliver.

The action items

This is pretty much a repeat of the conclusion you started with but in a call to action format. You’re asking the executive leadership team to make decisions. You’d want to be crystal clear about the decisions you need their help with.

It’s possible that are actions that you’ve already taken to move this forward. If so, highlight them as either done or in progress as a way to highlight the remaining actions needed.

As with everything, there isn’t a single format for all presentations but the above has worked really well for me.

Thank you to Molly Yee and Grace Noh for reading earlier versions of this blog post.