by Clint Boulton

CIO storytelling 101: 8 tips for captivating your audience

Apr 09, 2020
CIOIT Leadership

CIOs today must master the art of storytelling to win over their boards of directors. AvidXchange CIO Angelic Gibson and Gartner research director Ed Gabrys offer tips to craft compelling presentations.

man gesturing lecturing pitching idea presentation storytelling by g stockstudio getty images
Credit: g-stockstudio / Getty Images

Many IT leaders are treated as strategic executives driving digital transformation, but it’s not enough to give simply adequate presentations to their executive boards. Instead IT leaders must learn to be storytelling masters who hook their audience with a compelling narrative.

“Tech has gone beyond improving efficiency to having an impact on customers and profit streams,” says Ed Gabrys, a Gartner senior research director. “There’s an expectation on the part of the executive team that CIOs should step up.”

That expectation is being fueled in part by dynamic TED Talks, social media influencers and high-profile industry thought leaders, all of which have boosted expectations for presentation quality. CIOs who fail to hook their audience early risk losing them for the duration of their presentation. Ninety-five percent of people surveyed admitted multitasking, including looking at phones, during meetings, Gabrys says.

Here Gabrys and Angelic Gibson, CIO of AvidXchange, a provider of SaaS accounts payable software, offer tips for CIOs looking to brush up on their presentation chops.

Do your homework

When Gibson creates board presentations, she has one or more board members review them before she presents. This helps her “pressure test” and hone her message. “Too often we’re stuck in our own heads and we’re not bringing people along with us,” Gibson says. “It has to be high level enough to be understood by everyone in the room.”

Craft your narrative

The biggest key to presentation success is focusing on one big idea, such as articulating an initiative that supports your digital business. Storytelling helps boards understand how the business could be impacted by an investment requiring their approval, says Gibson. “It’s important to do that in a way that makes the information relevant to board members.”

Where to start? Gabrys advises describing who the story is about, detailing their desires, goals and ambitions, as well as their challenges and potential paths for success. Perhaps it’s “Julie” or “George,” serving as proxies for your typical customer. CIOs are well positioned to craft compelling stories because they are familiar with the business processes for everyone in the C-suite. “A good story will traverse all of those tribal elements,” Gabrys says.

Gibson adds that communicating the “why,” of the request, including detailing how competitive forces and market dynamics inform the request, is critical to the story. CIOs should also estimate the time it will take for initiatives to create value, and detail friction points that could slow speed to market.

As you conceive your narrative, beware of common pitfalls. If you’re looking for money for a new cloud service or artificial intelligence application, build up to it, explaining the competitive landscape and why you need to take action now to support Julie or George. While the solution should help drive the business outcome, avoid the temptation to lead with it. Unfortunately, many IT leaders start their story with the solution. “If they get it in the wrong order, they’ve lost their audience already,” Gabrys says.

Also, steer clear of too much corporate business speak and tech jargon or you’ll lose your audience. While CIOs should be able explain what the technology is, what it does and why they need it, technical details are often lost on a board.

Vary your vocal delivery

Introduce a change every 10 minutes. Studies show that people tune out a presentation after 10 minutes, so change your vocal dynamics, presentation format, media types or approach to interaction.

Employ ‘humble’ and ‘power’ pauses

Pause at the end of a sentence and the end of a big idea, which gives your audience a moment to reflect, recall and engage, Gabrys advises. Also, be sure to vary the length and speed of your sentences. Then pause. This is known as the “humble pause.” Take it further by pausing long enough that it starts to feel uncomfortable. Look out at your audience and acknowledge them. This is the “power pause.”

Ask questions to facilitate conversation

Try something open-ended like, “Take a moment and come up with one thing that digital giants are doing to attract talent, that we are not.” Then take a power pause and send them a clear signal that the question is intended to be reflected on and answered. Avoid rhetorical questions, such as, “Isn’t it frustrating when … ?” These are meant for emphasis and not a genuine answer.

Foster engagement

Know how children thrive on structure? Your adult audience could benefit from engagement in physical activity. For example, engage your audience in a show-of-hands question session, or ask them to take an audience poll on their phones, Gabrys says. Finally, encourage them to interact with their neighbors by sharing a story or having them solve a problem.

Close strong

Many great stories refer to the beginning. For instance, you may have set up a question that had not been answered or started a story you have not finished. Use your end to answer the question, finish the story or reframe your initial premise. End with a summary of key takeaways and a call to action. Tell them what to do next so that they can realize the opportunities you have presented.

Review your message

Often the story can’t be told in one presentation, but must be stretched out over 12 quarters, Gibson says. Taking time to review the presentation and feedback after the board meeting can help hone the message. Ask board members questions about what does or doesn’t resonate to gauge what works and use that to improve and advance your story for the next meeting.

CIOs can take plenty of other steps to ensure successful presentations and win over boards. Be sure to make solid eye contact by focusing on a section of the audience at a time, stroll away from the podium and keep your hands and arms open and expressive, Gabrys says. To learn more tips, see Gabrys’ Gartner blog here, as well as his Gartner webinar, “Storytelling for success: Techniques and ideas that create enthusiasm.”