I’ve been a GIS analyst for a few years, and I’m starting to get requests to present our location analysis to business managers and executives. Any advice on how to get comfortable in those situations and communicate effectively?
The first meeting I remember being especially nervous about was when I had to present to an executive two levels below the CEO. I had to explain why we should invest in a GIS software renewal and a data purchase. I was a new IT manager, and I was being asked to justify the business value, but I felt like I was being asked to justify my team’s existence. It was nerve-racking.
I had never been to a procurement meeting, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was given a one-page PowerPoint template to fill out, and that’s all I brought with me. I didn’t realize the executives would ask for more than that.
The meeting went terribly. It was your classic public-speaking horror story. I tripped over myself, used lots of filler words, and said things that probably weren’t all that coherent. Afterward, I thought, “This is only going to get worse if I don’t address the issue. I need to figure this out.”
My answer was to join Toastmasters [an organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills]. It’s a very structured program, and you focus on various components of public speaking with each assignment. It’s a safe environment to practice your presentation skills, because you’re in a group of people who are there to give each other feedback.
You’re going to be anxious in the beginning. That’s basically what you need to do—get that anxiety up the first couple of times and get over it. I learned that anxiety usually comes from excitement and an eagerness to share your ideas, not a fear of failure. That helped me get more comfortable presenting to our leaders.
I learned to anticipate strategic questions from executives. As a GIS analyst or IT manager, you get so focused on the data that you can get lost in the weeds. When you’re presenting to a business executive, you have to put yourself in their mindset. That’s another thing I worked on through Toastmasters.
It’s also important to remember that you’re the expert. You can find confidence in that—knowing that you can answer most of the tough questions. If you don’t know the answer, don’t ad lib. Just say, “I’ll find out for you.”
Before the meeting, practice. Present to people in a consequence-free environment. Give your spiel to your significant other. Even if they don’t understand it, they can listen for filler words or catch your bad habits. That helped me get more open to feedback and comfortable with my presentation skills.
A year after my disastrous first meeting, the software was up for renewal and I had to present again. I knew the executives would want to know how much we were spending, how many users we had, what we were doing with the software and data, and how that translated into business value.
I placed those answers in bullet points on a slide, then practiced telling my story. After I presented to my team, they gave me feedback, told me what didn’t make sense, and helped me polish it. In the end, the meeting went so much more smoothly.
To sum up what I’ve learned:
- Do your research, especially if it’s your first time.
- Talk to someone who’s been there and ask them what to expect.
- Think like a businessperson, not an analyst.
Since my initial presentations to executives, I’ve been on stage at conferences and on webcasts. Those events still bring anxiety—they probably always will. But learning how to harness the anxiety and convert it into positive energy made me much more comfortable presenting to executives and audiences in all kinds of settings.