Presenting to Executives

In a 60 minute meeting, you have 15 minutes, max.

One side effect of leading the International engineering effort for so many years is exposure to executives, given the strength of International’s growth and revenue impact. And as the cross-functional team has grown, so have the number of initiatives that ultimately fall within the remit of an executive stakeholder. Consequently one of my recurring meetings for the last several years is “International Steering Committee (ISC).” Kept intentionally small to facilitate discussion, ISC is a 60 minute meeting composed of C-Suite executives, VP/Director-level leaders, and ad-hoc invitees as needed.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve presented in this meeting over the last three years (maybe… four). 90% of these meetings center around topics outside of Engineering, covering things like product oppportunities, market sizing, revenue/growth, and marketing and operational spend. Occasionally I have an opportunity to inform a decision re: Engineering feasibility, but I spend the majority of my time in these meetings listening rather than speaking. And I don’t mind at all. It has been a fantastic opportunity to gain more perspective about the holistic inputs that drive company direction, and how to best frame topics for an executive audience. These inputs directly inform how I craft the narratives of the initiatives within my scope.

The responsibility of planning the agenda/content of the meeting falls to the VP/Director level. That planning starts weeks before the next meeting, when my cross-functional peers and I begin vetting topics and speakers in response to executive concerns. Closer to meeting day we prepare/critique slides and presentation content. Doing this for several years has solidified my thoughts on how to present to an executive audience.

Packed days of 51/49 decisions

I think about this a lot: executives spend their days jumping between 30/60-minute meetings where they’re repeatedly presented with 51/49 decisions. 1 Presenters, who have been eagerly anticipating and preparing for these meetings for weeks, perceive these meetings as their most important opportunity to change the company’s direction. To the executive - well, it’s their 8th back-to-back meeting of the day. It sounds exhausting. And while I’ve experienced personally how you can grow your capacity for meeting volume, the reality is as my meeting time expands my tolerance for low-value meetings decreases. I can only imagine how much worse this problem is for someone in the C-suite.

ISC is 60 minutes long. Given what I’ve observed in a multi-executive meeting like this, there are some fun dichotomies to navigate:

  • 60 minutes of an executive’s time is very expensive, and even more so if multiple executives are involved. But 60 minutes is also not enough time to solicit in depth discussion from multiple executives on multiple complex topics.
  • 51/49 problems are hard to navigate due to their nuance; teams, incentives and outcomes cascade in complex ways. To understand nuance, you must explain details. Explaining details takes time - which you don’t have!
  • Your meeting is really important, and the organization’s path forward is contingent upon their consensus on a critical decision. Guess what? The same was true of their previous meeting, which is why they were 5 minutes late. And the same is true of their next meeting, which is why they have a hard stop. In practice your scheduled 60 minute meeting is closer to 55 minutes of functional time.

60 minutes is both a lot of time to ask for and not that much time to operate within. The cost of leaving the meeting without a resolution is extremely high. And due to calendars it is often impossible to schedule ad-hoc follow-ups.

You have one shot. Be intentional about structure, pacing and content to ensure the outcomes you need.

Time the meeting intentionally

Through a lot of observation of what works and what doesn’t, I’ve developed a personal guideline for these 60 minute meetings:

15 minute presentation time and two big topics, maximum.

These constraints prioritize discussion time over presentation time. Because International spans so many departments, our overarching goal is almost always alignment on critical decision points. Alignment across departments requires discussion.

I approach all important meetings (interviews, presentations, ISC) in time blocks. So in theory, if ISC starts at 12:00pm:

  • Pre-meeting: Slides/materials are shared ahead of time, critical decision points communicated to set context
  • 12:00: People start to join, banter, wait for people who are late
  • 12:05: Everyone who is likely to show on time is there; start
  • 12:05 - 12:20: Slides - Intro (1min) topic 1 (7min), topic 2 (7min)
  • 12:20 - 12:35: Topic 1 discussion
  • 12:35 - 12:50: Topic 2 discussion
  • 12:50 - 1:00: Recap decisions and action items
  • Post-meeting: Email recap email of decisions and action items

In practice I don’t expect to follow this agenda precisely, but it is a sensible basis for planning. Regardless of plans it’s important to be flexible. Sometimes you can nudge a discussion along to fit a timebox and sometimes you can’t; agendas often change in the moment for good reasons. Assume executives will ask clarifying questions. Assume they are very quick at thinking on their feet. Assume they will interject if they disagree. Assume they will poke holes in prevailing theories. And most importantly, assume they have context you don’t. All of these are great outcomes! This is what you want! And if you have 45 minutes of slides, this is what you don’t leave time for.

Make crisp asks

A “crisp ask” to me, in this context, is a request that narrows a problem to a single decision point that only an executive can solve/remedy. It fully clarifies the inputs and tradeoffs of the problem, and contextualizes outcomes in the areas that participating executives care most about - which is often revenue.

Here’s a poor ask:

We can’t get buy-in from teams to buy into our roadmap items. They tend to say no to helping us achieve our goals, despite their presence on the company-wide roadmap. Can you help?

Here’s a crisp ask:

Some teams are caught between these two competing priorities in the product strategy: International and [foo]. As a result, [these teams] are deprioritizing initiatives [A, B] that roll into our International goal in favor of initiatives [C, D] that roll into [foo]. The expected impact of their current priorities is [numbers], but if they were to focus on the International goals their impact would be [numbers]. While both courses of action are justifiable in isolation, we think a focus on International is more aligned to our long-term revenue targets because it will unlock [$X, $Y, $Z] in the medium/long-term. Can you clarify if this tradeoff is acceptable, and if not, clarify expectations with [these teams] around their focus on International vs. other priorities?

The first ask is poor because there are too many unknowns, and no signs of the due diligence necessary to identify the core problem. And this is not the arena for coaching. Frankly if you’re presenting to executives, you should have already pursued the usual workflows of “did you try speaking with their manager?” You should already be solving the 80/20, 70/30, 60/40 decisions that come across your plate. Bring the 51/49 problems you can’t solve without executive authority.

The second ask is crisp because it provides critical context. It’s not an overly simplistic take implying that people are being stupid or lazy. Instead it communicates how and why various teams, acting in good faith, cannot proceed without clarity or decisiveness, and why navigating the tradeoffs are not obvious. It speaks to the unintentional creation of competing incentives. And it states the outcomes in terms of quantifiable future revenue.

The Ask is more important than the Narrative

As my reporting chain can attest, my first question when coaching someone through delivering a presentation is always, “What is the narrative of this work?” Because the secret to nearly all effective presentations is telling a compelling story. The most common arc: the pain points that created a need for this work, lessons learned through implementation, and the opportunities unlocked after delivery.

I say “nearly all presentations” because my advice for delivering a presentation to a room of executives is the opposite: don’t deliver a narrative. Deliver the crisp ask first, and focus on data versus a story.

This is for a few reasons:

  1. You don’t have the time for a story.
  2. Reiterating a previous point: executives have context you don’t. They often already know your story, or know why it’s not the real story.

So in terms of slide construction:

  1. Present the crisp ask first.
  2. Triage the remainder of your presentation to the most important, data-driven points that fit into your time constraints.
  3. Create slides in an appendix for all other supporting data and context. Assume you won’t present these slides, but have them available if you need to clarify anything during the meeting.

When I think about it, I don’t find this point that unintuitive. If you’re very senior, have you ever listened to a presentation where you could quickly guess the crux of the problem and solution in the first five minutes? But the presentation is actually 25 minutes long?

Narratives are great at educating and inspiring, which are major goals for larger audiences. But for a very experienced, targeted audience where time is expensive? Get straight to the point. If the problem doesn’t fit into one of their existing mental models, they’ll tell you.

Grab bag of reasonable questions

What if you have three really important topics?

Sorry - it doesn’t work. Prioritize your two most important outcomes/decision points and triage the third for a subsequent meeting / email.

What if there’s one topic that requires an explanation of deep/nuanced context?

Great - you have one meeting topic that day. You can stretch the presentation content to 20min and extend the discussion time.

I’ve personally used this format to explain engineering/feasibility rationale wrt headcount, which involved walking a predominantly non-technical audience through technical constraints and outcomes. This was one of the rare executive presentations where a narrative was valuable because the content was so far out of most of the audience’s domain expertise.

What if you only have 30 minutes?

Your presentation time is reduced to 5 minutes, 1 topic. Remember: you’ll still start the meeting 5 minutes late.

Footnotes

51/49 Decisions

I’m a little surprised I can’t find a better link representing “51/49” decisions, which is a thing Chad Dickerson would speak about at All Hands while he was the CEO at Etsy. This article, despite being covered in ads for things I will never buy, is surprisingly substantive re: Obama’s decision making framework for choosing between alternatives with poor tradeoffs:

  1. Listen to the people who will be most affected by the change.
  2. Realize there’s no right answer – it’s about weighing the odds.
  3. Seek out the naysayers.
  4. Get outside the ‘bubble’ of people who are ‘supposed’ to advise you.
  5. Test your B.S. detector.
  6. Insist that people deliver bad news quickly and are not punished for honest mistakes.

“People used to ask me, Why was I calm during the presidency? In addition to being from Hawaii, which really helped (we’re just chill),” he joked, “part of the reason is I set up processes. So by the time I made a decision, I might not get the outcome I wanted, but it might be a 51-49 decision, or a 60-40 decision, but I can say I heard all the voices involved – gotten all the info, seen all the perspectives – so when I made decision, I was making it as well as anybody could make it.”


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