How to Present Research Insights to Executives with Ease
Don't let the prospect of presenting to executives scare you off. These tips help you come confident and prepared.
Presenting research findings to executives can be hard, but also highly rewarding.
I bet you’ve seen terrific presentations where you couldn’t stop listening and stayed engaged—and you probably have been in presentations that were so boring that you felt tempted to look at your phone.
The truth is, delivering an astonishing readout is an art. As we all know, research doesn’t have any value if we’re unable to use it to create change. Learning how to maximize your impact through delivering great presentations is not just better for the company, but for you as a researcher. In turn, you’ll feel your job is valuable (and hopefully your company will recognize that as well).
In this article, I’ll share the main keys that allowed me to deliver successful presentations in ADP, the organization I work for.
Some recommendations will sound familiar and others may be completely new. Allow yourself to see which ones resonate more with you and your research practice.
1. Understand who your audience is (and what they want from the presentation)
Are you speaking to the vice presidents? Managers located in Asia? R&D leaders? When speaking with executives, they’re usually in high demand and their attention timespan is small. That means that you have only a few seconds to convince them that you’re worth being listened to—and that’s a really short time.
What to ask yourself before you start
Why does your audience care about what you're going to explain?
How can this be relevant to the position they are in?
Maybe you’re presenting to executives who have a budget of $2 million and they don't know where to invest it—but you do. Or maybe their clients have been relinquishing contracts and they don't understand why. But you do.
There are a million reasons why they might be interested, and your goal is to find those reasons. Once you know what they care about, that will be your Northstar. Everything you share will need to be connected in some way to that.
I can guarantee that if you do that, you’ll have a crowd listening to what you have to say. And the reason is simple: you’ll be sharing something that matters to them.
2. Back up your research with numbers, videos or powerful resources
Bring tangible evidence of your research to help your audience empathize with your story. Sharing insights that conflict with a leader's views is challenging, but is part of our job. I've worked in a lot of companies, and it's something I’ve seen many times.
Sharing visual resources can help you smooth over those interactions. When they see the user directly mentioning why it’s painful to use a product or service, they start to understand that it’s not about you, but about the users.
I remember when I started my career, this would massively stress me out. Thinking about somebody reacting negatively to the discoveries I made scared me. How could I be sharing something that opposes the president's view? The truth is, that’s our job. Your responsibility is to bring clarity to a group of people. And sometimes that can be uncomfortable.
I recommend sharing anything that can help your audience empathize with the users. The key is that they understand you’re just a messenger. I have found that when I share a challenging insight, sharing a video illustrating the point right after helps a lot. For example, if I’m sharing an insight about the lack of friendliness of a communication tool, I could include four short clips of users exemplifying it. This helps avoid unsubstantiated opinions and feedback.
The most challenging pushback I've ever experienced is emotional pushback. It’s difficult because it's people's emotions conflicting with research results.
Associate Principal UX Researcher, ADP
3. Prepare yourself for pushback
You will experience pushback at some point in your career, and this is fine. This doesn’t mean your work is bad or that you’re not a good researcher! Dealing with pushback is part of our job. Even though it’s not the most fun part of it, you can use it for your own growth.
Pushback comes in different forms. That includes…
Feedback on areas of weakness
Before presenting anything, I recommend trying to see any apparent gaps in your research. Once you find them, prepare answers that justify the decisions you took. You may have questions about these instances and you want to be prepared to answer them.
For example, let's say that for a specific usability test it was really hard to recruit users. Instead of having five participants for each persona, in some instances you just managed to get three. It was still relevant since you were observing the same patterns across personas. You know by your experience that three participants can be enough if you are testing with other groups and observing the same patterns. But you have to be ready to answer the question: "Three participants is not representative, how much can you rely on those results?"
When working in the industry, sometimes things are not as ideal as it shows in research books. But that’s fine. You just have to understand the circumstances you are in, how much you can rely on the results, and be able to reflect on potential areas of weakness before delivering the readout.
The most challenging pushback I've ever experienced is emotional pushback. It’s difficult because it's people's emotions conflicting with research results. I have tried to understand for a long time why people get so defensive with research insights. “Why does this bother them so much?” I thought. “This will help them and their business.”
After some time reflecting on it, I realized that in a lot of cases, these people had been in charge of making sure the product was successful—and those insights were showing the opposite.
If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend sticking to numbers and being as rational as possible. What helped me as well was to reassure and remind them that you’re a team, and that you’re doing this to be in a better place all together. The goal is not to find whose mistake it was, or blame anybody.
“We already tried it”
Another kind of pushback I find is what I call the "we already tried it" pushbacks. In those occasions, seek to understand why something didn’t work out, and explain what you’re doing differently this time. Also, if stakeholders get overwhelmed by the amount of changes you're proposing, you can also say that you don’t have to fix everything, just prioritize mindfully.
4. Pitch the story at the right level
I have seen so many colleagues fail at this one, and it’s a shame because the whole purpose of the research is missed. Insights can be incredible, but if you’re not able to pitch the story at the right level, you’ll lose your audience quickly.
What does it mean to pitch the story at the right level? It’s not the same to present to an executive as it is to present to a designer. Or to present to a designer than to present to a developer. Even between executives, it’s not the same to present to the VP of development than the president of a product. There are different things to take into account when understanding the audience.
Consider the granularity of the information you’ll provide
Here’s an example: if you’re presenting to a designer, they may be really interested in understanding if a specific button is visible by the user or not. Do you think the manager is interested in this information? Probably not. The manager might care about if the new design is better than the older version.
Keeping people’s attention is your number one priority
To do this, you have to share information at a level that is relevant for them. If they’re not going to care about details, don’t share them. I’m sure there will be another audience who will love to know those details, and that is where you should share it.
5. Tell a story that connects with your audience
We all love stories. We’ve been hearing stories since we were kids. As adults we hear stories all the time: when we watch a movie, when we read, when our friend tells us about their love lives...stories are everywhere.
Think about your readout as a story you are explaining. Unfold the story step by step, slowly, making sure each step you move forward is understood by the audience. Don't rush it. Provide enough information so they can connect the dots during the presentation. You want your audience to be in the same flow as you and follow you all the way.
To make sure the story unfolds mindfully, put yourself in your audience's shoes. How much do they know about the topic you are going to speak about? Where do you have to start so everybody can follow?
Think about a group of executives. Do some of them know the product you'll be sharing research on, but others don't know what the product looks like? Share briefly what the product does and how it looks—sharing a few screenshots should help. Starting like this will help you keep your audience’s attention for the first minutes.
To continue the presentation, you probably want to speak about the research methodology you used in this study. But before moving on, ask yourself: What could I share before that, to keep their attention and engagement? What do they care about right now?
They want to understand why your readout is worth paying attention to. I would recommend describing which paint point that was big enough for you to run this study. You could explain why it was critical for the company to understand this problem space. Here, you’re creating a bridge between topics. And this should happen across the presentation to make sure they follow you through each step.
The key question to ask yourself: before jumping to the next slide, is there any bridge I can create to improve understanding? If so, mention it. Make it easy for them to follow you. The easier the better.
6. Put yourself in the right mental headspace
Sometimes when I'm presenting, I feel like I have to prove my worth to the audience. Please, don’t do this to yourself. It’s unfair and also doesn’t serve you well.
Shift the focus from yourself to the audience. This is not about you, but about them. Focus on the value you can provide, on sharing what will help them do better. This will remove the pressure you feel to perform or prove yourself, and instead will shift your focus to a place that is much more meaningful: help others do better.
7. Do it with love
It may sound cheesy, but I believe this is the secret sauce. If you’re passionate about research, this will be easy for you. I always imagine when I deliver a readout that I truly care for everybody who is in the room. This helps me do it in a way that is engaging, interesting, and also in a caring manner. When I receive questions, comments, or even some pushback, coming from a place of love helps me see the positive intention of that person.
Instead of reacting to them, I listen and I answer intentionally. I feel we have a tremendous honor to be speaking to executives, helping them empathize with people who might be struggling, creating meaningful and long lasting change.
And at the end of the day, that makes their lives (and the lives of others) better.
Andrea M. Amorós is the Associate Principal Researcher at ADP, a payroll solutions provider leader globally. She has always been a really deep thinker; curious about understanding human behavior and the unconscious mind. Her expertise lies in conducting strategic research, discovering patterns at scale to improve people's lives. She has a background in Design Engineering and has worked in a variety of startups, consultancies and large scale corporations.
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