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Presenting when the stakes are high

Let’s face it. Most people don’t enjoy giving a presentation. It’s scary and nerve-wracking whenever you have to stand up in front of a crowd. For a while now, I’ve provided tools and insights to help you be successful while giving all sorts of presentations – whether you are sharing information at your monthly staff meeting or accepting the Academy award. The goal is to be engaging, clear and comfortable.

The rules for success when presenting don’t usually change. However, there is a class of presentations that has its own set of rules: the high-stakes presentation.

What do I mean by a high-stakes presentation? Here are some examples:

  • Pitching a new product or service to potential investors or clients

  • Presenting a business plan to secure funding or convince stakeholders to make a strategic decision

  • Delivering a keynote speech at a conference or industry event

  • Presenting research findings or a proposal to a governing body or decision-making panel such as a board of directors

  • Defending a thesis or dissertation in front of an academic committee

  • Giving a high-profile media interview on behalf of a company or organization

  • Making a sales presentation to a large potential client or partner

These presentations often involve important decisions, investments, or negotiations, and require a high level of preparation, skill, and attention to detail to achieve the desired outcome. Success or failure can have a significant impact on the presenter, their organization, or their audience.


Don’t fret. You can ice a high-stakes presentation. You just need to know the rules. That’s what this blog post is about: being successful when giving a high-stakes presentation. The secrets to success and the landmines to avoid.

Ready? Let’s go.

Be clear and concise

When making a high-stakes presentation, it is important to get to the point AND get to it quickly. No fluff. Don’t worry about opening with a joke to “put the audience at ease.” The audience members are often ultra-busy individuals with many other responsibilities to attend to. Empires to manage. Decisions to make. People to lead. They need to be able to quickly grasp the key points of your presentation without being bogged down by unnecessary details.

Brevity is your friend.

Chances are you will only have a few minutes to make your point anyway. So, make the seconds count.

By presenting a clear and concise message, you are able to demonstrate that you respect their time (which will always be limited) and that you are able to effectively communicate important information.

Being concise also helps to ensure that your message is memorable and impactful. When you are able to communicate your key points succinctly, your message is more likely to resonate with the audience and stick in their minds. This can be especially important if you are presenting a proposal or recommendation that requires their approval or support. You increase the likelihood that the listeners will remember and act on your recommendation if you don’t “bury the lead.”

A helpful tool to ensure you are being clear and concise when making a high-stakes presentation is to create and utilize a one-page executive summary. The purpose of the summary is to enable busy listeners to quickly grasp the most important information without having to read through an entire report or sit through a lengthy presentation.

Whether you create a one-page executive summary to hand out to your audience members, or merely use the structure to create your presentation, here are some tips to keep in mind when crafting your high-stakes presentation:

  • Provide context: The audience at a high-stakes presentation needs to understand where your topic fits into the Big Picture. For example, if you are presenting financial information, provide some background on the company's overall financial performance and how it compares to industry benchmarks. Another option is to give them a quick snapshot of the history or progression of the current state. Don’t assume your audience knows all the nitty gritty but also don’t get bogged down in the details of “how we got here” either. It’s a balance so take the time to determine how much or how little to provide.

  • Identify the key points: Be certain of your goal – are you giving a perspective, making a recommendation, or asking for a decision? Once you are clear on your objective, ensure you identify the key points that support it. For example, if you are presenting a business plan, the key points might include the market opportunity, your unique value proposition, financial projections, challenges, and risks. If you’re having difficulty identifying what to include, one strategy that works for me is to brainstorm everything I think is important to include. Then edit, edit, edit until I have it down to the top 2 or 3 points that support my message. Eliminate everything else.

  • Use clear and concise language: Use plain language that is easy to understand and avoid using acronyms or buzzwords that might not be familiar to everyone. For example, instead of saying "We're leveraging our core competencies to optimize our synergies," say "By focusing on our strengths, we’re working more efficiently."

  • Leverage visuals: Visual aids can help convey complex information more quickly and effectively than written or spoken language. For example, you might use a graph to show how your sales have grown over time, a chart to compare your financial performance to that of your competitors or icons for different departments or individuals. Make it easy for your audience to “pan and scan” to quickly grasp the information.

Know your audience

Understanding your audience is a critical step in preparing any presentation, but it goes double when it’s a high-stakes presentation. You have limited time to connect with your audience so you need to know who they are and what matters to them.

Here are some specific things you can do to better understand your audience:

  • Research the audience members: Find out as much as you can about each person, including their backgrounds, experience, and areas of expertise. It’s not bad form to use Google, LinkedIn, or a company’s website to find out more information about someone’s professional background or their company’s core values.

  • Understand the audience’s priorities: Ask yourself, “what does my audience care about?” For example, if it’s a presentation to the board of directors, recognize that they care about how decisions affect long-term goals (not short-term); HR leaders care about decisions that impact people and productivity; financial directors will want to know how this affects the “bottom line.” One size does NOT fit all audiences, so to be effective, especially when it’s high stakes, you must take the time to see the topic from their perspective.

  • Anticipate their concerns and questions: The more you know your audience, the more you can anticipate where they may push back or question you. Put yourself in their place. What are they trying to accomplish? What is blocking their goal? How does your solution help mitigate risks? Thinking through their concerns will help you address these issues proactively and demonstrate that you have thought through the issues.

  • Connect to the heart: Always remember the power of a good story to connect to your audience on an emotional level. Stories connect to our feelings and they are very powerful motivators. Research has shown that we are humans make decisions emotionally first, and rationally second. By helping your audience FEEL your presentation, it is more likely they will ACT on it.

Expect to be stumped

High-stakes audiences are often intimidating. These are smart, successful people. They will often think of something you hadn’t considered relative to your presentation. In fact, depending upon your audience (i.e. CEO, President, Board), it’s their job to know more than you do!

So, yes, I want you to be prepared to have answers to the top 20 questions you think they are going to ask. And then…be ready for the 21st question that will completely stump you.

So, what happens when that happens? Be ready with a diplomatic way to say, “I don’t know.” Something like:

  • I appreciate your question, and I want to make sure I give you the most accurate information possible. Can you help me understand more about your concerns?

  • I don't have the answer right now, but I would be happy to follow up with you after the meeting with a more informed response. Is there a specific time or deadline by which you need the answer?

  • You bring up a good point. I’m happy to further explore that with you right now or I can get back to you.

  • (and my personal favorite) That’s a great question. I have no idea.”

Remember that it's okay to not have all the answers. In fact, questions that come up can bring you great insight into what is on the audience’s mind.

By anticipating pushback or being stumped, you’ll be able to more easily keep yourself calm and centered so that you can respond clearly versus reacting emotionally. By all means – don’t bluff your way out of it. Be transparent if you don’t know the answer. Your audience members will appreciate your honesty and willingness to follow up.

Don’t expect much emotional feedback

This isn’t a jury of your peers. They may not care about you at all. They probably won’t be nodding helpfully as you’re going through your presentation, catching your eyes or giving you a smile. That is to say, don’t expect to feed off their energy as you might be able to at, say, a staff meeting or a class.

When giving a high-stakes presentation, you will need to access your inner energy and keep yourself positive despite the fact that it may feel like an emotional desert.

It’s not uncommon to give a high-stakes presentation and then walk off without a wit of understanding of how it went. That doesn’t mean you can’t get some sort of feedback.

If there is another person with you there as part of your presentation, find a way for the two of you to get together afterward and talk about how it went.

The lack of engagement also does not mean you aren’t effective. I’ve presented to executives that didn’t give me any indication that what I was providing to them was helpful in any way, only to find out later that my recommendation was implemented. That’s the ultimate feedback!

Wrapping up

Presenting at a high-stakes meeting can be a daunting task, but with proper preparation and execution, you can succeed. Remember to be clear and concise, understand your audience, expect to be stumped, and don't be surprised if you don’t receive much emotional feedback Instead, focus on delivering a well-crafted presentation that focuses on their success. Now that’s high stakes!

So, what now? Want to take your presentation skills to the next level? Check out NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations leadership workshop. Participants practice and present real content and receive supportive and individualized feedback and coaching. Individual and group sessions are available.

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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at


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