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The Perils of Boardroom Presenting or How the Mighty Fail

March 19, 2014

You’re a senior manager, respected departmental head, great team leader and you’ve been asked to make a presentation to the board – either your own company’s or a client’s. What could possibly go wrong?

You may be good on your feet, a confident presenter and you might have a great track record in sales or marketing, so you face up to the challenge of presenting your latest business plans, product or strategy ideas to the board with a justifiable degree of confidence. That’s fine. So why do so many people who fit that description come a cropper when in front of a board of directors?

There are a few common explanations in my experience of observing many such presentations over the years.

How well do you know your board?

The first is forgetting one of the principal pre-requisites for successful presentations: know your audience.

Boards are a mixture of executive directors – who you may think you know – and non-executives – who maybe little more than a name in an annual report to you. People fail in boardroom presentations because they actually under-estimate both groups.

Many people assume that the directors they see around the business most days and who they might meet with from time-to-time are a known quantity but they can behave very differently in the boardroom where they are making the big decisions about the future of the business. I have been alarmed at the frequency with which senior managers under-estimate the detailed knowledge the chief executive and his or her colleagues will have of all aspects of the business, its products and departments, especially the financials. I have often coached people before such presentations and had to point out that the figures they believe should be the meat of their presentation will already be very familiar to the board and that they need to go into the analysis and trends behind those figures. “But the CEO won’t be familiar with that detail about my department”, people argue. Oh yes, the CEO will and that is why they are the CEO.

The non-execs are not just there for decoration or to add an aura of experience and respectability to a board: they are there to do a job and do it they will.

How did it all go so wrong?

How did it all go so wrong?

You need to check out the background, experience and skill sets of the non-execs and be prepared to be grilled by them. Remember, these will be people who reached the very top in their careers, many of them having been CEOs, so they will know their way around balance sheets, strategy plans, product development and just about anything else you might care to throw at them. Look at their areas of expertise and experience and try to pre-empt some of their questions in your presentations: this will help keep their attention and show you have done your homework.

Second, be absolutely clear and focused on your objective. This will almost certainly have been given to you when you were issued with your summons to the boardroom. Stick to it. If it is a report-based presentation focus on the key facts – good and bad. If you are presenting a new development, a change strategy or your company’s services, focus on measureable objectives, costs and be clear about what you are asking the board to back, especially if it requires investment or underwriting losses during a launch phase.

Third, if you have bad news don’t try to hide it and never become defensive. A board of directors will home in on the bad news like a hawk swooping on a hapless mouse in a field. Get it out on the table early, acknowledge that it is there, speak about “challenges” and say you want to put it into context first before turning to the difficult task of analysing those problems. If the bad news is in your department, take responsibility for it. Do not blame junior colleagues who are not there to defend themselves. If it is a supplier who has let you down be clear on the lessons you have learned. Ducking responsibility in the boardroom tends to be career limiting.

Think carefully about the structure of your presentation. Boards are by their nature impatient beasts, so starting with your conclusions often works well. All the way through remember Keep It Simple & Short – KISS – without being superficial or resorting to vague generalisations.

Check beforehand in detail how they like to be presented to, what they expect to have in front of them, how much – if any – PowerPoint they will tolerate. And stick to the time you have been allocated, allowing plenty of time for questions, for which you should come prepared with detailed answers for everything you think they could ask about. You won’t need it all but it will be the one piece of information that you didn’t take with you that will be your undoing.

In most boardrooms, the presenter will be seated or stood opposite the chair. Do not fall into the trap of addressing all your remarks in that direction: work the whole table. If you have a point that you believe will interest one of the directors, make sure you address it to them.

Try to save a brief summary – I mean brief – for after the Q&A so you leave behind a positive impression of being in control together with a succinct summary of your key message.

Want to improve your presentation skills?

Check out my courses that can help you with you presentation and public speaking challenges – Courses

From → Presentations

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