6 mins

How does engineering director Dan Na present to executives to preserve time and propel meeting efficiency?

As an engineering director, I’m occasionally invited to represent my engineering teams in cross-functional meetings that include C-suite members. Experience has informed my perspectives on how meetings are effectively planned for this level of seniority.

Over the years I’ve both delivered and coached many coworkers through giving presentations, urging them to tell the audience a story, as this helps keep an audience engaged and leaves them with lessons they may apply to their work.

This advice applies in almost all other venues for public speaking with one exception: presenting to executives, which requires you to deliver “crisp asks” instead.

Here are four key points to keep in mind when presenting to an executive audience:

1. Understand an executive’s context

An executive’s calendar is often full, inflexible, and packed with critical decision points. 

An obvious statement: executives are busy. But as my own scope of meetings has increased over time, I’ve realized the hidden drawbacks of non-stop back-to-back sessions. While it’s possible to grow a tolerance for meeting volume, the same can’t be said for meetings that could’ve been an email. I can only assume this problem is much worse for an executive calendar.

A full calendar also means meeting time is hard to come by, making the meetings that do happen feel more urgent or significant. Not only are these meetings back-to-back, but they also often focus on critical decision points that require executive intervention. Former president Obama referred to decisions of this type as “51/49” decisions: high-stakes decisions, with no clear winner, where all available alternatives have almost equally good and bad tradeoffs. 

Presenters in these meetings have been anticipating the event for weeks, seeing this as their opportunity to advocate for a critical change in company direction. But, their case for change has to be made under the pressure of a strict 30 or 60-minute timeframe, because the executive’s next meeting is equally important and time-constrained.

The net impact of this context – a full calendar of meetings, time inflexibility, and high-stakes discussions – creates a single incentive for presenters: don’t waste time. Be intentional about how you plan and conduct meetings with executives, as you may have only one shot to advocate for the change you want to make.

2. Be intentional about time

I have a guideline for planning the agenda of a 60-minute, multi-executive meeting: 15-minute presentation time which covers two big topics, maximum.

This guideline encourages two behaviors: 

  1. It prioritizes discussion time over presentation time.
  2. It forces presenters to focus on the most important details of the ask.

Discussion time is absolutely critical. Executives bring context to decision points that you may not be aware of. This will often encompass upcoming shifts in staffing, strategic direction, or investment areas. Sometimes they will communicate this context in the meeting, but often they won’t or can’t. But this bespoke context is what ultimately informs these 51/49 decisions. As a presenter, it’s critical to leave time within meetings for executives to ask questions, poke holes, and make connections.

A potential meeting agenda:

  • Pre-meeting: Slides/materials are shared ahead of time. Critical decision points are communicated to set context.
  • 12:00: People start to join. Wait for people who are late
  • 12:05: Everyone who is likely to show up 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: Recap email of decisions and action items sent

Meetings don’t always go according to plan, and it’s important to be flexible in practice. However, approaching critical meetings with an agenda ensures that you’ve done the due diligence to set the meeting up for success from the beginning. When timelines do change, this helps you to think strategically about how to redirect the remainder of the meeting time to fulfill intended goals.

3. Make crisp asks

Every meeting you hold at this level will include an “ask” to some degree. A “crisp ask” is a request that narrows a problem to a single decision point that only an executive can solve/remedy. When presenting your case, you should focus on the most important details and make as crisp an ask as possible. It should fully clarify the inputs and tradeoffs of the problem, and speak to the top-of-mind incentives that an executive cares most about, which is often revenue.

If you’re presenting to an executive audience, I’m going to assume you hold a senior position. Importantly, this means you should be resolving a majority of the difficult decisions that land in your lap. So, bringing anything less than a 51/49 problem to executives shouldn’t occur.

Here’s a poor ask:

Other teams aren’t helping us achieve our team’s goals, even though those goals are included in the company-wide engineering strategy. They keep saying “no” when we ask them to make updates to their products and codebases. Can you help?

Here’s a crisp ask:

Some teams are caught between two specific competing priorities in the engineering strategy: our goal and [foo]. As a result, [team X] is deprioritizing initiatives [A, B] that roll into our 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 our goal their impact would be [numbers]. While both courses of action are justifiable in isolation, we think a focus on our goal is more aligned with 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, reiterate expectations with [team X] to focus on our goal over. other priorities?

The first ask is poor because it fails to identify both contributors to the problem and the potential outcomes. It overlooks how crucial it is to specify which teams are involved, the competing incentives, why they are important to each team, and what a decision in either team’s favor will cost the company. 

In contrast, the second ask provides an appropriate level of organizational context, speaking to how a company-wide strategy has unintentionally created competing incentives between teams acting in good faith. It lays out all the fundamental facts and, most importantly for executives, states the cost of this misalignment in terms of quantifiable revenue.

4. Jump to the ask, not a narrative

Given that executives are time-constrained with more context than you, my key recommendation for presenting to an executive audience is to avoid delivering a narrative. Instead:

  1. Present the crisp ask first during your presentation.
  2. Use the remainder of your brief slides to present the most important, data-driven topics that fit and substantiate your talking points.
  3. Include additional slides with relevant context in an appendix. While you probably won’t present these slides, they'll serve as backup to clarify details if necessary.

Narratives are great for inspiring and educating large, general audiences. But for an executive audience, time is expensive, so it’s best to get to the crux of the problem as quickly as possible. A well-planned meeting with clear objectives sets the stage for executive decision-making and also demonstrates your ability as a senior leader to instill impactful practices across the company.

Final thoughts

The central theme here is to tailor your behavior to executive incentives. Executive schedules are packed, so they don’t have time for low-value meetings, drawn-out narratives, or being presented with decision points they aren’t suited to solve. The ability to plan and execute a high-value meeting will not only help drive your initiatives forward in the short term, but it will also help build your reputation to encourage executive engagement in future problem spaces.