When the Executive Interrupts Your Presentation

A young friend of mine was giving her first presentation in her first professional role. When she was still on the opening slide, a senior executive asked a question. The question threw her off, and she never got back on track–at least not in the way she wanted. 

Hearing about my friend's experience, it was eerily timely to receive an article in my inbox that same day titled "What to Do When the Executive Interrupts Your Slide Presentation." My friend Gilda Bonanno wrote the article, and she has permitted me to share it with you. You can subscribe to Gilda's email newsletter and also find valuable articles on presentation skills and communications on her website


What to Do When the Executive Interrupts Your Slide Presentation

Gilda Bonanno

By Gilda Bonanno

Recently, participants in one of my training programs complained that they spent weeks to prepare long, in-depth PowerPoint presentations to sell their ideas to a senior executive. But he stopped them on the first slide and asked them so many questions that they didn't have time to go through the rest of the slides. While I initially shared their indignation, here are some suggestions about how to view the situation in a positive light:

  • Remember, the point of the presentation is to communicate your information to your audience; in this case, your audience is the executive (and his team) and your goal is for him to understand your project and make a decision about it. Whether he does that by looking at all your slides or listening to the answers you give to his questions, you have achieved your goal. 
  • Slides are just the visual aids – you are the presentation. It is better that the executive asks you the questions rather than asking you to be quiet so he or she can read each of your slides. Your ability to answer the question demonstrates that you have command of the information. The slides are just there to provide you backup, rather than the other way around. 
  • The exercise of constructing the slides is useful in itself. Even if you don't get to show all of them, just the fact that you spent the time to prepare them means you know the information well. 
  • Be selective in what you include in your presentation and on the slides. Just because you know all the details doesn't mean you have to say them or put them in the slides. Focus on the big picture in your presentation and keep the details available to answer the questions.
  • Creating effective and focused slides takes time – so build that time into your schedule. 
  • You will be interrupted with questions – expect them and be prepared for them. You can try to respond with, "I have a slide later that answers your question," but if the executive asks for the information, it's not usually a good idea to make him or her wait for it. 

So the next time you are preparing a slide presentation to present to an executive, remember that you are there to communicate to your audience in whatever way that audience wants.  

About Gilda: Gilda Bonanno helps people improve their communication and leadership skills so they can have more confidence, influence, and success. Since 2006, she has worked with organizations on four continents, from Chicago to Shanghai and Rio to Rome, including GE, Travelers, Praxair, Assa Abloy, Wells Fargo, and Yale University.


Thinking about Gilda's advice, I would emphasize her last point to my young friend: Expect questions and be prepared for them. Because it was my friend's first professional presentation, she probably assumed the situation would be similar to her presentations in college, where people sit quietly and listen until the end. Anticipating questions and interruptions would have helped her stay on track. 

Do you have experiences or suggestions about handling executives' questions? Please share them. 

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  1. I had a similar experience. I was giving a teaching seminar for faculty audience (I thought). Turns out 4-5 people who came were Deans, and they interrupted immediately and constantly. I had planned just a 20 minute presentation with plenty of time for questions, but it was not to be. I had a hard time adapting on the fly. These tips are helpful for next time!

  2. I think we all develop our own style for these things over time and experience.

    I always aim to circulate a slide pack with the headline points in advance of presenting.

    Then, when I start my presentation, I can ask if the audience would prefer I ran through the slides or address any specific questions they may have first.

    If they want to focus on areas of interest, having a copy of the presentation printed with slide numbers allows me to jump to specific slides where relevant – using them as the visual aids they were designed to be.

    It seems to help the audience feel more like active participants, rather than recipients of what I want to say.

    Personally, I also find presentations much less stressful if I treat them as a conversation with an interested peer (though I appreciate that would be entirely unsuitable in some situations).

  3. In my experience, most executives don’t have time for long, in-depth presentations. Rule 1 is consider who you’re presenting to and tailor the presentation to suit their needs.

    I agree with Walker’s advice to ask the audience up front if they have any questions before you start. If time is limited, you could open by asking the audience to hold questions until the Q&A period at the end, but you risk people forgetting what they wanted to ask. I prefer Walker’s suggested approach of sending slides ahead of time and starting w/ Q&A because it’s more interactive and helps you ensure your message is actually being received.

    I also agree that the presenter is the show, the slides are just a prop.

  4. Taryn, thank you for sharing your helpful cautionary story. It may help readers here try to figure out who actually will be in their audiences. Though painful, your experience will help you (and perhaps others) prepare you for next time.

    Walker, thank you for telling us about your excellent strategy. I do not know others who share slides in advance and then ask the audience how to proceed. Brillant!

    Nilima, I agree. People do not want to wait for answers. But if they can be guaranteed that their question will receive a better, more thorough response if they wait a few minutes, they may be patient.

    Anita, good points. I agree with your thinking.



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