How to make a presentation

Why the Executive Summary Fails

Executive summaries are seductive. As a neat list of main points of a presentation, they make us feel safe. We put them upfront in our presentations and feel ready for an executive audience. However, many presentations go awry in the executive summary itself. Why is that?

Summary vs. Essence

I believe sparkling business presentations to senior executives should communicate “essence” not “summary”. 

  • A summary lists all relevant points. The essence is the one main message.
  • A summary shows what we know. The essence tells us what we should do. 
  • A summary hedges. The essence creates clarity. 

By stripping down an image to its essential meaning, an artist can amplify that meaning. – Scott McCloud

The Fish Story
(as told in Presentation Zen)

Vijay opened a store and put up a “we sell fresh fish here” sign. His father suggested taking out ‘we,’ because it gave the vibe that the company was more emphasized than the customer. The sign was changed to ‘Fresh fish sold here.’

Next, his brother suggested removing the word ‘here,’ as it was obvious where the fish was being sold. ‘Here’ was nixed and the sign read ‘Fresh fish sold.’ His sister said ‘sold’ could be removed from the sign because where else would it be sold? What remained was ‘Fresh fish.’ Finally, a neighbor mentioned the freshness of the fish was evident from the fish itself. 

The sign simply said “FISH” at the point when Vijay realized the smell and appearance of his shop made the fact he sold fish obvious. So, in its final form, the sign became a picture of a fish with the word “fresh” inside.

Why Senior Executives Like Essence

When you communicate essence, you let a senior executive know you not only have the intelligence to understand the potential options but also the courage to select one of many paths forward. This combination of intelligence and courage is a critical component of executive leadership.

You also show you are capable of stepping outside your point of view. Not list everything you have done but use their limited time to explain what needs to be done. 

Elevating to Essence

Please do not misunderstand my criticism of executive summary. They definitely help to create a baseline business presentation. However, if you are up to the challenge of elevating your presentations from “Executive Summary” to “Essence”, there is one question I would repeatedly ask myself:

What is the Less Than Seven-Word, Non-Obvious Distillation of my Work?

It is hard to boil a 2-3 month project or the effort of an entire team to seven words or less. But you must. The senior executive will probably have mind-space to remember those seven words or less. Those few words will stick. What are they?

Think of how the Fish Story boiled five words down to one. If you cannot say it in less than seven words, you have not boiled the message to its essence. 

Keep removing the layers till you find the core message, the true distillation … the essence.



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