Presenting to the CEO in 5 slides

How to make your ideas concise, credible & compelling

Welcome to the first issue of the SEO MBA - thank you for coming on the journey and welcome! This newsletter is going to explore ideas around leadership, management, consulting skills and effecting change. There’s an online course coming soon. All feedback welcome.

Picture the scene - I’ve been working for the past 6 weeks on an investment plan for a new SEO team with a client. The last version of the presentation is 39 slides. After reviewing with the VP we agree to take it to the CEO for approval. Then I get this email:

How would you feel if you received this note? Those beautiful 39 slides you worked so hard on!

Actually - if you try to present a 39 slide presentation to the CEO you should expect to get derailed 3-5 slides in anyway.

What’s happening here is that as you travel higher up inside an organization the decisions get more important, but attention spans get shorter and so the information gets more compressed. The CEO trusts that the VP has pre-vetted and analyzed the situation - what they expect is a condensed view of the relevant information to make a decision.

This compression is important. And if you want to be effective at the executive layer you need to compress and package your ideas well. There’s three things to focus on, you need to be concise, credible & compelling.


Executives are busy - and they’re also prone to interrupting. Filler content gives them time to either start talking about their own ideas or check out. Neither of those is good. 

What you want is a clear and concise description of what you are proposing. This often means bundling a bunch of work into a single project with a single goal. When presenting to the CEO, typically the first thing should be “I’d like to propose we do X, which will achieve $ZZZ and cost $Y”.

Then your 3-5 slides write themselves.


  • What you are proposing: X?

  • What it will get us: $Z

  • What it will take: $Y


  • What is the current situation? (in case they aren’t aware)

  • What are the risks or considerations? (addressing objections you know you’re going to get before they’re raised)

  • What is the bigger picture for results? (say in year 2, 3, 4)

Everything else should be in the appendix. You should be armed with the data, charts and analysis for anticipated questions and “drill downs” (which is just a fancy way of saying questions).


Executives are trained to be skeptical. Most of a leader’s job is keeping the company focused and saying “No” to things that are distractions from the current strategy or unrealistic given current constraints.

Even more so when it comes to SEO. We’ll talk about the reputation of SEO with executives in another email but for now suffice to say that you need to present credible ideas. You need to make the executive believe you when you say that you can do X and get Z in return - not just that the returns are there but that you are capable of delivering. 

Being credible could take various forms, 

  • “Yes the CMO and I are agreed this is worthwhile investment”

  • “Yes I have discussed with the CPO and he agrees on my investment estimate”

  • “Yes 2x traffic is possible - look at competitor A or competitor B”

  • “Yes I’ve already analyzed the tech impact and it’s 3 sprints of work”

In short you should expect the executive to attempt to poke holes in your idea.


Making a project compelling isn’t just about revenue - though of course that’s typically a high concern - it’s about pushing the CEO’s buttons. What do they care about right now? Look for benefits beyond just revenue:

  • Does this project support a key strategic initiative the CEO cares about?

  • Do the results compound in years 2, 3, 4?

  • Will this project make a key process more efficient?

  • Will this project make reporting less complex?

  • Will this project improve our reputation?

  • Will this project allow us to get rid of some legacy technical platform?

  • How does this project compare to our competitors?

Learning Executive Presence is Hard

While compressing your ideas into 5 slides might seem simple, the truth is that it requires two things:

  1. Practice presenting to the executive layer

  2. An understanding of the context of the business at large.

Both of these are access problems - how do you get access to the room where ideas are presented and decisions are made? And how do you get access to the company’s strategic priorities?

Executive presence is a tacit skill which means you learn by watching and practicing - so you want to try and gain exposure to real situations. This could be as simple as asking your boss to invite you to observe a CEO meeting, or volunteering to be involved in some adjacent project that has CEO-visibility.

Strategic context is available, but you usually have to ask and listen - this means asking questions of other departments, other leaders and listening to the language used in company all-hands. And don’t be afraid to simply ask. If you’re putting together a presentation for the CEO - ask a VP “what does the CEO care about right now?”.

Sidenote: if you’re in a leadership position already this is why it’s important to ensure that your teams have access to these situations and access to the strategic context of the organization. Without it - it’s hard for them to practice and improve.

Yes, but... SEOs struggle especially with this

The curse for SEO professionals is too much data - the SEO industry is drowning in data - rankings, traffic, CTR, conversion, page speed, competitors, keywords, links, engagement etc etc etc. Across the SEO circuit you hear a lot of talk about importXML, Python, Power BI and more [Editor’s note: I too have talked a lot about these things!]

These things are all important as practitioners but they essentially train you to speak a language that the executive team is likely not familiar with.

It’s important to understand which data sources CEOs are familiar with and which ones they trust. Being clear, compelling and credible is about choosing data points that the CEO trusts: headcount, revenue, traffic. You should abstract away the SEO-specific data points into business metrics where possible. Choosing the right level of abstraction however can be tricky and is exactly the kind of tacit skill you learn through practice and observation.

This is the heart of why the SEO MBA exists - to help SEO professionals become fluent and confident presenting to the C-suite and working cross functionally to get things done.

See you next week.