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Presenting to Executives

   Life is a Series of Presentations

When you think about it, life is a series of presentations, just as a book wrote by executive coach Tony Jeary stated in the early 2000's. Consider a week in your own life: how many “small” presentation do you make? Whether you are talking to your boss, a potential client, your significant other, your kid, the way you present your thoughts and ideas to people have a profound effect on how they respond to you. You do this dozens, if not hundreds of times a week.

Now think about the “big” presentations. We’ve all had to do things like a job interview, or try to convince our colleagues of a recommended path of action, or like me 10 years ago trying to convince my then-girlfriend to marry a loser like me. 

The bottom line is that our professional and personal lives can hang in the balance between a good presentation and a bad one.

Developing the Presenter's Mindset

The first step we must take to become successful when presenting is to develop what I call “the presenter’s mindset”. By understanding a little of the neuroscience behind how our brains manage the stress of presenting and the psychology of positioning our message, we are better able to come across as credible and win over our audience.

What's Happening in Your Brain

Even the most seasoned presenters, and actors, and public figures experience some degree of nerves or stage fright before having to be in the spotlight. This is completely natural. We can, however, calm some of this uneasiness by understanding what is happening in our brains before we open our mouths.

Reptilian Brain

When we’re presenting to people in positions of perceived power, the first thing to kick in is reptile brainThe reptilian brain controls the body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance. If you’ve felt heart beating in your throat because of your fear of being in front of the room, or your armpits starting to soak through your shirt when you realize you’ve forgotten to cover a couple major talking points in your presentation to the board of commissioners, that’s your reptilian brain doing the whole “fight or flight thing”. 

Limbic System

When we experience presentation stress, the reptilian brain sends signals to your limbic system, which is the seat of your emotions. The limbic system is made of the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus. The emotions that you feel as a result of a stressor are related to past memories that your limbic system have recorded about experiences related to the stressor. If you begin to panic while presenting, it may bring back unsolicited memories that take you out of the moment. Now not only are you  starting sweat through your blouse, but in your mind, a negative chorus of voices starts telling her how much of a fool you appear to be to your audience.


Fortunately, we have evolved from being purely instinctual and emotional beings to individuals who can think and process because of the neocortex.  The two large hemispheres of our brain that are the neocortex are responsible for language, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness. It also allows us to analyze and use logic. When it comes to dealing with the stress of presenting, we rely on the neocortex for analysis and logic, to regulate the primal urges of the reptile brain and the emotions triggered by the limbic system. So when we’re in a panic situation, we can take a step back and assess – do I really look like a fool because my laptop died? OK, I have no slides, now what? What am I going to do so I can keep moving forward?

Getting Out of Your Head

Looking beyond the science of our brains, we also have to consider the psychological aspect of presenting to an executive audience associated with being a presenter.

In general, we live in our own heads, but this is especially true when presenting to those in positions of authority. We want to look good. We want to demonstrate how knowledgeable we are, how hard working we are, and how dedicated and how impressive we are as speakers. These psychological concerns can trigger the reptilian brain because of the pressure we put on ourselves to be amazing in front of this audience. However, we may inadvertently create a dinosaur of anxiety that triggers the fight or flight response.

Instead we need to be thinking about what our executives are thinking about. Like you, they too want to look good as individuals. They also want to look good as a management team. They want the organization to look good. The difference, however, is that while you are presenting to them, they are thinking well beyond looking good. They might be considering how to we grow market share, or how to leverage the organization's competitive advantage, or how the organization can be more cost-effective.

Our primary responsibility is to take a step back, get out of our heads, and go into the attic of our senior leaders, so that we can think like they think and deliver a presentation that resonates and accomplishes our goals.


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Thom Rexnal
Posted on  13/01/2018 23:31 Thanks for sharing this wonderful post! I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who is a bundle of nerves when presenting to executives.
Paul Signorelli
Posted on  16/02/2018 18:05 So great to have your voice back in the world of blogging; I've missed it, as you well know. Very impressed, as always, at how creatively you have approached this: the seamless blending of text and video is wonderful. Looking forward to reading/hearing more of what you are doing. Kudos, Jay; very well done.
Jill Hurst-Wahl
Posted on  20/05/2018 14:32 Jay, so many people - and librarians, too - need help in presenting to upper management. Many organizations should book you for training and help!

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