How to Wow Your Board of Directors

You've got 15 minutes to make a presentation to the board. Here's how.

In the 15 minutes a CIO is allotted to address his board of directors, a lot can go right and a lot can go wrong. Very wrong. Wrong enough to kill a valuable project. Wrong enough to cut short a promising career.

It's no surprise then that a board presentation "can send panic into the heart of a CIO," says Norbert Kubilus of Tatum CIO Partners, who's made numerous presentations to boards in his 30-year career as a CIO. And CIOs have good reason to fear. Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications, once worked with a vice president in line to take over as CEO. After one bad presentation, this vice president found himself cut out of the succession planning. He eventually had to accept a smaller role within the company.

Yes, the stakes are high. But keep in mind that your board "considers you a valuable member of the team," says Bates, author of the upcoming book Speak Like a CEO: How to Command Attention and Get Results, due out in spring 2005. "This is your opportunity to connect your role to the value of the overall organization."

With that in mind, here are some tips for making the most of your 15 minutes.

Hone Your Message

You should first ask yourself, What am I trying to say? Eric Brown, CEO of Communication Associates in Memphis, Tenn., calls it the "today statement": What do you want the board to hear today? The structure of the presentation should flow from that.

"CIOs always start out with way more than the board members would possibly want to hear," Brown says. "Is it a status report? Is it a request for funds? Is it a 'Here's the bad news, but it's going to be OK' statement? Once you figure that out, you can start to narrow down the tons of data."

If you're making a presentation intended to persuade the group to do something, the most important tool you have is evidence. "What convinces people of something is a preponderance of facts," Bates says.

Be Strategic

Boards are concerned with strategy, and they expect CIOs to work with them at that level. "CIOs tend to provide way too much technical information that doesn't relate to a business decision," says Bates. "Boards want to know the value of the technology." That means: When making a presentation, CIOs must speak the language of the business, not the vernacular of IT. "If return on equity is the major metric in your company, then when discussing a technology expenditure, you need to relate it to them in terms of ROE," Kubilus says. Too often, CIOs view their presentation as an opportunity to show off what they know about IT. That's a big mistake. "If you're the CIO, the board is going to assume you know technology. Otherwise, why were you hired?" says Naomi Deutscher, an executive and presentation consultant in Cambridge, Mass. David Luce, CIO and assistant vice president of The Rockefeller Group, recently made a presentation to the real estate company's board asking for a multimillion-dollar investment in new computers. "I was talking about the size of that investment and the benefits we would derive from itthat these computers would allow us to process transactions three times fasteras opposed to talking about it the way we normally would in IT, in terms of memory or disk capacity," says Luce, who is the incoming president of the Society for Information Management. The board approved the investment.

Make Visuals Clear and Concise

Just as your message should be succinct, so should the supporting visuals. One common mistake CIOs make is dumping every piece of data they have into a PowerPoint presentation and dragging the board through every bit and byte. Consequently, board members tune out. "CIOs might think that if they throw everything up there, they can't get in trouble because everything's covered. But what you want are only those visuals that support the message," Bates says. That means clear, easy-to-read and compelling visual aids.

And you shouldn't rely on staffers to prepare your visual presentations for you. An assistant who knows what information to include but not the overall message can do more harm than good. "A talented admin can prepare an above-average PowerPoint presentation, but he may not know that the presentation has four major divisions of information that the presenter will need to be able to go back and forth to," Brown says. "If the visuals aren't organized in the right way, the CIO will lose credibility during the presentation."

Brevity Is the Soul of Wit

"I always keep the written report to five pages or less. That's about the maximum attention span someone has for any given topic," Kubilus says. "Somewhere along the line I was taught that if you can't keep it to five pages...keep it to five pages."

Presentation time should be kept to a minimum too. Plan to speak for two-thirds to three-quarters of the time allottedtops, advises Kubilus. That leaves more time for questions. And even if there aren't many questions, the meeting-weary board members will still appreciate your concision.

Practice, Practice and Then Practice some More

Worry that going over your presentation too many times will make it stale? Don't. "I've never seen practice make someone worse," says Bates. "A CIO may think that because he can stand up and talk at a meeting or present something to his staff, he can present to a board. So he goes in there and wings it. That can be disastrous." Prepare by practicing out loud, with an audience if possible. Luce practices in front of his direct reports or even invites the CFO or COO to critique him. They're his toughest audience, he says.

An alternative is to tape yourself on audio or video, to judge yourself as the board will. "It's like watching a tape of yourself to improve your golf swing," says Deutscher. "You get a really objective sense of how you're doing and what you need to work on." It's Not a Speech

Unlike giving a talk at a conference, presenting to the board is less about you addressing an audience than it is about the audience addressing you. Questions, which may start the minute you stand up (if the board has done its homework), are the driving force of board meetings.

"It's very common for board members to say, Wait, let's go back to that slide," says Brown, who works with FedEx executives on such presentations. "Or, I need to see this or that again. That kind of catching the presenter off guard, of him not having quite the control he's used to, can be difficult."

Early questions can be a good sign; they indicate the board is engaged. But you should prepare a response for every possible scenario, even the worst. "I always tell my clients to think about the questions that you hope they won't ask. What do you think you should know more about? What would make you nervous? Prepare for those questions," Deutscher says. "That way, you can learn how to say, I'm really glad you brought that up, instead of the normal reaction, which is to get defensive and scared, and to shut down." Another tip: Know which visuals will help you answer the toughest inquiries so that you can instantly pull them up to use in your response.

Be Professional but Engaging

When it comes time to speak before the board, you should be polished but not too formal. It's a fine line, but the goal is to be conversational. "Maybe you speak too fast. You need to have some pauses," Deutscher says. "You want to avoid 'ums' and hesitation, but you don't want to be so polished that you seem fake and slick. A lot of boards don't like that."

But don't mistake professionalism with monotony. "Keep it exciting. It's common for a specialist like a CIO to start off valiantly avoiding things like the alphabet soup of acronyms and then slip back into it midway through the presentation," Brown says. "Keep the terminology and tone vibrant and meaningful for the audience. A board doesn't like to be bored any more than anyone else does."

And don't be seduced into getting too familiar with the board, no matter how casually they present themselves and their questions. You're not a member of the club; you're a guest.

Appropriate dress is also important. "You need to know exactly what's expected," says Deutscher. "The board members may always wear polo shirts, but maybe they're really fine polo shirts." Follow their lead.

Stay Alert

You can't possibly anticipate everything. If you get a question that you can't answer on the spot, there are several optionsnone of which includes making something up. Acknowledge that you don't have the answer and say you'll get back to them. Or call someone to get it if you know where it's immediately available. "The worst thing you can do is give the board an answer that's wrong," says Kubilus. "Credibility is a big issue at the board level."

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