Secrets of a truly successful board pitch

One of the most frequent questions I get asked when people hear I sit on company boards isn’t about executive pay packages. Instead, they want to know how to present to a board so its members will say yes.

The question always calls to mind a presentation that went wrong. Several years ago, a rather dandified fellow from inside a company gave a presentation to a board I sat on. He was snide at times, made several off-colour jokes, winked at board members and made his political leanings clear with side remarks about the government of the day. When he didn’t know the answers to questions we asked, he tried to fob them off as irrelevant.

When the chair finally ended the presentation, we looked at each other in disbelief. We weren’t just unsure about the proposal, but also unsure of the person who brought the proposal. I think you can guess how we voted.

Don’t let this be you.

People present to corporate boards for many reasons—they could be suggesting a new direction for the company, explaining a complex legal issue that needs to be decided quickly, or simply giving an update on an on-going project. But boards come in all shapes and sizes, be they school boards, neighbourhood watch boards, apartment boards, non-profit boards, employee committees.

No matter the context, the principles of presenting to decision making bodies are the same, and getting it right is crucial. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, so long as you keep some guidelines in mind. Here are nine do’s and six don’ts of being effective:

Board Presentations Do’s:

Know what you are walking into. Board meetings are often jam packed with a long agenda. In the past couple of months I’ve been in meetings that have lasted up to 8 hours, covering up to 20 topics. Your topic is special to you, but you have a finite amount of time to get essential information across.

Do your homework. Who is on the board? What is their background? It helps to be able to tailor the presentation when applicable, so you are not telling them things they already know, nor assuming knowledge they might not have.

Send documents in plenty of time. I try to ensure board members get their papers at least a week in advance. If there’s a deadline, meet it with several days to spare in case there is feedback before it goes to the board. Please don’t “surprise” us, as in “I didn’t provide the papers in advance because I wanted to keep you in suspense”. This isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, it’s a board meeting. Give us the tools we need to make a decision.

Know in advance how much time you have. Do not go over your allotment. If the chair feels more time is warranted, he or she will extend it. Make sure to leave plenty of time for questions.

Ask how the board would like the information presented. For example, ask the chair, “shall I present the whole thing or hit the high points?”. Another approach: suggest that you “take the papers as already read”. That means you presume that everyone has reviewed the documents you sent in advance, and you will just address the most important points and avoid repeating every detail.

Be prepared. Be professional. Be concise. Board members will judge the content of your presentation, but also the confidence with which you deliver it.

Stay calm and answer the question asked. If you don’t know the answer, don’t get flustered, defensive or try to fake it. Instead, promise to come back with the answer as swiftly as possible. Then follow through quickly. Also, and this is really important, don’t get thrown off if you get a lot of hard questions. If we didn’t think your proposal had merit we wouldn’t bother with questions, we’d simply say no. Board members ask questions differently — some meander, others get straight to it. No matter the style, stay even-tempered and answer clearly and concisely. Also, don’t give attitude about questions you think are “dumb” or obvious — we are doing our job. Often the most interesting or important information comes from seemingly simplistic questions.

Be clear and concise about the outcome. If there is a decision to be taken by the end of your presentation, make sure the options are very clear. It never hurts to state the options up front, explain them, and then present the options again.

End with grace. When it is time for you to go, say thanks and leave. Don’t linger.

Board Presentations Don’ts:

You may be kept waiting — don’t complain. Meetings can run late depending on the agenda. If it is a closed door meeting you’ll be kept waiting outside. If not, you’ll be there watching other people presenting, or listening to debates on other agenda items. Don’t under any circumstances grumble about it, as it will taint the room’s view of your presentation before it even starts. A cheerful “no problem” goes a long way.

Don’t bore us. I recently sat through a report that essentially told everyone in the room something we all already knew. The presenter quickly lost our attention. Even worse, we had all mentally checked out by the time he’d gotten to the “ask”.

Don’t lobby. Your presentation is not an opportunity to take the stand on other areas. If you are there to talk about upgrading the IT infrastructure, throwing in a “while I’m here I’d like to make a pitch for better parking facilities” is not helpful to you or us.

Don’t use jargon. We are not necessarily experts in your field. Use clear language that everyone around the table will understand. The first time out, explain what you mean by ESG, grok, and API, otherwise it just sounds like a string of nonsensical letters and words. Try to avoid overblown statements — a “complete sea change” better be pretty big. Also trend-driven words that will make people roll their eyes. “Thinkfluencer” comes to mind.

We are not all the same — don’t air your bias and political inclinations. With any luck the group around the table is a diverse one, with diverse opinions. Off-colour jokes and political comments have no place in your presentation and could offend the very people you are trying to persuade.

Don’t go over the top with bells and whistles. There’s no need to pass out flowers or an entertaining video unless it is directly related to the topic. Useful: “Here is a sample of what we are talking about.” Strange: “Here is a flower for all you lovely people.” And yes, I was in a meeting where someone once handed out flowers to “all the lovely lady board members”.

Clear, Concise, and to the Point

Think of your presentation as a memo, not a novel. Board members thrive on facts presented in a clear concise manner. Even if you leave your presentation without getting the answer yes you hoped for, you will at least leave the people at the table with a good impression of you. And that will go a long way if you come back to the board with a revised proposal.

Give it a go and let me know if it helped, and if you know someone who preparing to give a presentation, clip this and send it to them. Chances are not only will they be grateful, but so will the board members who hear the presentation.

This column is from Above Board with Lucy Marcus, which illuminates how boards work, the consequences when they don’t work, and how they can succeed. To receive alerts from the BBC about new Above Board with Lucy Marcus columns, please subscribe here

Date

11 September 2014

Secrets of a truly successful board pitch

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