How NOT to present to the CEO by Paul Smith

I had the opportunity to give a presentation to Procter & Gamble’s then-CEO, A.G. Lafley, four or five times in the 20 years I was with the company. And the first time was unforgettable. That day I learned a valuable lesson—the hard way—about how not to present to the CEO.

I’d been given 20 minutes on the agenda of the Executive Global Leadership Council. That was Mr. Lafley and a dozen or so of the top officials in the company. They met every week in a special room on P&G’s executive floor designed just for this group.

It’s a perfectly round room with very modern features, centered on a perfectly round table. Even the doors are curved to fit with the round motif.

My presentation was the first item on the agenda that day, so I got there 30 minutes early to set up my computer and make sure all of the A-V equipment worked properly. I was, after all, making my first presentation to the CEO. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly.

The executives started filing into the room and taking up seats around the table. After half of them had arrived, Mr. Lafley walked in. He walked almost completely around the table, saying hello to each of his team members, and—to my horror—sat down in the seat immediately underneath the one and only projection screen—with his back to it!

I thought, “This is not good. He’ll be constantly turning around in his seat to see the presentation and probably hurt his neck. Then he’ll be in a bad mood, and might not agree to my recommendation.” But I wasn’t going to tell the boss where to sit, so I started my presentation.

About five minutes in, I realized he hadn’t turned around even once to see the slides. I stopped being worried about his neck and started worrying that he wasn’t going to understand. And if he didn’t understand, he certainly wouldn’t agree to my recommendation. But again, I wasn’t going to tell the CEO what to do. So I just kept going.

At 10 minutes into the presentation—halfway through my allotted time—I noticed he still hadn’t turned around once to look at my slides. At that point, I stopped being worried and just got a little frustrated. After all, I’d spent three weeks working on this presentation. I thought the least he could do was look at it.

After 20 minutes, I was done with my presentation, and the CEO hadn’t ever bothered to look at my slides. But he did agree to my recommendation. Despite that success, as I was walking back to my office, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed somehow. I debriefed the whole event in my head, wondering what I had done wrong. Was I boring? Did I not make my points very clear? Was he distracted with some billion-dollar decision far more important than whatever I was talking about?

But then it occurred to me that none of that was true. He’d been looking me right in the eyes the whole time, and he was the only one who asked more than one question at the end. He was very engaged. He wasn’t looking at my slides because he knew something that I didn’t know until that moment. And this is it: He knew if I had anything important to say, I would say it. It would come out of my mouth, not from that screen. He knew those slides were there more for my benefit than for his benefit.

As CEO, he probably spent most of his day reading dry memos and financial reports with detailed charts and graphs. He was probably looking forward to that meeting as a break from that tedium and as an opportunity to engage someone in dialogue—to have someone tell him what was happening on the front lines of the business, to share an idea or a problem, and to ask for his help. In short, for someone to tell him a story. Someone like me. That was my job during those 20 minutes. I just didn’t know it yet.

Looking back, I realize it was probably no accident he chose the seat he did. There were certainly others he could have chosen. He sat there for a reason. That position kept him from being distracted by the words on the screen and allowed him to focus on the presenter and on the discussion.

He taught me a valuable lesson that day, and probably didn’t even know it. My next such opportunities involved fewer slides, used more stories, and were far more effective. It was my first field lesson in the value of telling stories at work.