How to present as a CEO


When CEOs stand up and talk, they have the power to lift or lower the mood of their audiences. Too often, they lower it. Sometimes they even alarm or alienate people. This is not, of course, their intention. But it happens when they misunderstand some of the basic ground rules about communication. In this article I’m going to share ten top tips to help the world’s CEOs spread more light, understanding and engagement when they speak inside or outside their organisations.

1) Think about the audience

This sounds obvious, but too many CEOs prepare generic speeches and presentations that they give to many different audiences in many different places. Before writing or assembling a presentation, ask yourself first of all how your audience are likely to receive it. Will it contain information which is new to them? Will they benefit from hearing it? If so, how? Do you want them to do or think something different as a result of hearing you speak? If not, there’s probably no point delivering your presentation.

2) Build a bridge

As the salesmen say, people buy people first. In other words, before accepting your product, advice, information or point of view, they make a judgment, often subconscious, on whether they accept you as the kind of person they listen to – whether they like you, trust you, admit you to their group, find you interesting, funny, authoritative and all the rest. All in the blink of an eye. So start your presentation with something that (a) they can relate to and (b) says something about you. The words you say may be trivial – a joke, a pleasantry, a story, a compliment to the host – but they must signal that you deserve their attention, and that what you are about to say has something in it for them.

3) Keep it simple

The best and most intelligent writing can be understood by primary (elementary) school pupils. Long words, convoluted sentences and jargon only confuse. It is actually harder to write simply, but it repays the effort. And the simpler your language, the more people you will reach. Don’t patronise, but don’t assume too much knowledge of, or interest in, your specialist subject. Avoid subordinate clauses, in-jokes and humour based on language or cultural assumptions.

4) Structure your presentation

Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. Don’t labour this. However, the audience will feel more comfortable if your presentation has a beginning, a middle and an end, and both you and they know where you have got to in the structure. It’s best to schedule questions after the body of your presentation but before the very end. Give a time limit for questions and remain in control. After questions, end on something uplifting.

5) Use the Rule of Three

Humans are hard-wired to remember groups of three. From the Holy Trinity to jokes and politicians’ sound bites, groups of three are everywhere. So giving your presentation three parts is a tried and tested structure. The divisions can be based on, for example – past, present, future; individual, family, society; short, medium and long term. The choices are many.

6) Paint pictures

Talking about the ‘big picture’ in a presentation invariably involves a degree of abstract thought, but abstractions are hard to grasp and remember. Pictures, on the other hand, are understood by the part of the brain associated with emotion, liking and memory.  For every abstract concept, either show a related physical picture or describe a picture in the words you use. As the broadcasters say, the best pictures are on the radio – because they are the ones inside your head.

7) Tell stories

People have been telling stories since the beginning of humankind, and they are still the best way to engage the interest of an audience. As with pictures, your stories should illustrate the general point you’ve just made. It could be a case study, a tale of something that went wrong or just a funny yarn that illustrates a point. If the story involves you, so much the better. The more the audience knows about you (within reason!) the more engaged they will be.

8) Be your informal self

Once upon a time, CEO presentations were very formal affairs, befitting the high status of the individual speaking. You might speak for an hour or more, confident that your underlings dare not be so disrespectful as to nod off, yawn or simply leave. Then came YouTube, and people got the opportunity to watch your presentation later in the comfort of their own home. Once they were in charge of the clock, they clearly weren’t going to give you an hour’s attention. So speeches got shorter. And different types of speaker started looking at each other’s conventions and learning from them. Surprise surprise, it turned out that academic lectures, business speeches, religious sermons and stand-up comedy weren’t so terribly different from each other. Everyone got sharper, shorter, less formal. You may be speaking to a large crowd, but the huge screen that’s relaying your presentation to the crowd and to the online audience means it’s still an intimate occasion. So you have to be as informal as seems natural to you.  Address the audience as you would a familiar colleague or family member. Smile. Make eye contact with one person at a time, or if you can’t see the audience, with one section at a time.

9) Be physical

Your physical appearance is as important to your audience as your words. So dress to impress. Be energetic, enthusiastic, mobile. If you think your hand gestures are over the top, you’re probably wrong. You’re allowed to be excited about your subject. If you’re not, nobody else will be.  There is an element of acting in all presentations, but don’t try and play a character. Use your own personality, but supercharge or enhance your gestures and mannerisms to let people see them, especially if you’re a long way from the stage.

10) End with aspiration

The end of your presentation is the part people are most likely to remember, so always let them leave on a high note. Talk about how great the future will be if you all pull together. (I’m not advocating cliché – phrase it as elegantly as you like, but that’s the gist of what you will mean!)


Put these tips into effect, and you will make your audiences more attentive, more understanding and more motivated. They may even invite you back! Good luck.



Tony-CollTony Coll is a highly regarded public speaker on Reputation Management, Crisis Communication and the Media. His company, Tony Coll Media Training works with individuals and groups, from C-suite executives on defining messages, making speeches and videos, practising crisis communication plans and being interviewed in the media, to stakeholders learning about responsible social media.

Follow Tony on Twitter: @tonycollmedia

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