How to Present Persuasively to a Board

Board presentations in many ways are no different to presentations to other audiences and groups. In board presentations you still need to:

  • have completed a thorough stakeholders exercise and know as much as you can about the members of the board and their attitudes;
  • know your subject;
  • know what you want the board to say ‘Yes!’ to;
  • find some key ‘values’ or ‘emotions’ on which to hang your presentation;
  • structure your content to make it easily digestible;
  • deliver your content confidently;
  • wear the right uniform and talk the talk of your stakeholders.
There are however a number of other considerations you can address and tactics you can choose to employ to ensure your message is heard and embraced, the first of which is to decide if a presentation is the right way to go.

Would a written report be a better way of gaining board support? Written reports are useful when there is a great deal of technical data, a complicated process that needs careful scrutiny, or where a number of lead-up steps need to be taken before a case needs to be stated or advocated.

Some executives use the tactic of providing written reports that deliver high levels of data and proposing that the board ‘accept’ the reports. Then, they round off with a presentation on ‘Best Case’.

Having decided if a presentation is the best course of action, review the following tips and ideas to determine which ones suit your personal circumstances.

Front-End Research

In studies conducted by Professor Jay Conger of the University of Southern California, it was found that effective corporate persuaders would select influential and savvy colleagues and superiors to get an emotional reading from them prior to engaging in processes of persuasion. They would question how various ideas and proposals might impact emotionally and logically on staff, superiors or board members. This enabled them to acknowledge and mirror in their proposals the emotional state and expectations of those they were seeking to persuade.

In board presentations, it makes supreme sense to discuss your proposals during the development phase and avoid the situation of ‘springing’ a completely new proposal on your board. Where possible, consider the following:

  • Try out your raw ideas on various board members before you finalise them. If you can’t access board members, test your proposals on your colleagues, CEO, or other senior execs in the know, during the development phase of your ideas. Elicit from them/him/her as much detail of board attitudes as possible. Make amendments to satisfy any concerns or ideas expressed.
  • Notice or discover the ‘value’ words board members use, such as ‘shareholders interests’, ‘profitability’, ‘responsibility’ ‘market share’ ‘credibility’ and other key words that relate to fundamental concepts and principles embraced by your board. Find ways of linking your key ideas to the value words you have elicited. Value words also provide benchmarks that you can employ when delivering board reports, as opposed to submissions.
  • Get to know your subject from ‘both sides’. An audience of board members is generally a demanding audience where assumptions, judgements and proposals may well be challenged.
  • To avoid being unprepared for challenges, become a Devil’s Advocate of your own position. Research the downside of your proposal and build up a comprehensive idea of the other side of your argument, proposal or idea. Get colleagues to pull your proposal apart if they can.
  • Complete an opportunity-cost exercise so you can be the one who says something along the lines of “I would be remiss if I didn’t detail the potential costs and pitfalls of this proposal….” complete with well thought out ideas on how to neutralise or minimise those costs and pitfalls.
  • Having a very clear picture of opposing arguments and the pitfalls and negatives inherent in your proposal will allow you to pre-test the validity of your position. It also prepares you for demanding or difficult questions during, and at the end of, your presentation.
  • Understand clearly the format required. Often, executives turn up to a board meeting with their content well prepared but with little idea on the format of the presentation. Boards like exercising their power (Who hasn’t sat outside a board meeting stewing while waiting to be summoned?) and your board will probably demand you deliver your presentation according to its rules and not yours.
  • Ensure you know how the board likes information, reports and proposals to be presented. Schmooze a board secretary, ask your CEO or a sympathetic board member to discover how the board likes presentations to be delivered and follow the rules rigidly. By delivering your presentation in a familiar format you increase the persuasive power of your presentation.
  • Know who the tyrants are and what their hobbyhorses are. Board members are no different to any other group. Often board members will make statements or ask questions simply to show off their knowledge. It is wise to determine if any of your content will touch upon pet subjects of individual board members. In such cases you need to design tactics that either appeal to, or circumvent, particular positions of individual board members.
  • Know where the power resides. What power blocs operate within the board? As a managing director you may well know who the ‘Alpha’ personalities are on your board. If you are not a CEO, find out as much as you possibly can about the power politics of your board. You are then in a position to tailor your content to the values and beliefs of the alphas or to the dominant power bloc on the board.

You have approximately thirty seconds to four minutes (depending on which research you rely on) to establish an initial relationship with your board. These first few valuable minutes of the encounter will determine the degrees of attention members will be willing to invest on your presentation and whether they choose to actively process what you have to say. Opening statements in board presentations are crucial

Design a powerful opening statement. If your opening statement is clumsy and inept, expect board members to label you as such and to process what they hear through that filter. People rarely separate the person from his/her behaviour in such instances. If your statement is confused, woolly, silly or uncertain, don’t be surprised when you notice that a fair number of your board have turned their cognitive lights out.

Make your content relevant. Persuasion researchers have found that one of the most important variables in triggering motivation to think about a message is personal relevance. Personal relevance can stem from a variety of factors: linkage to personal beliefs and values, desired outcomes, group expectations, plans for the future, corporate vision, issues of personal relevance to the board as a whole and shared experiences to name a few.

When the relevance quotient of a message is high it’s been found that people will be more motivated to scrutinise and think about its content. If your arguments bear scrutiny then you can expect to achieve higher degrees of persuasion.

During your front-end phase discover ways in which to make the content relevant to your board. If you work in a specialised division avoid at all costs the gobbledygook and in-house language of your division. Translate your content into language that is relevant to board members.

Keep your presentation concise, succinct and to-the-point. Don't present too much detail, such that the impact of your presentation gets buried under the weight of the data you present.
Think about the level of energy you will incorporate into your delivery. Often presenters are in awe of their boards and allow this self-defeating emotion to impact on the degree of energy they invest in their delivery. Think carefully about how you will need to display the ‘courage of your convictions’.

This is not to say that you should fake energy or go over the top, but your board will be reading at an unconscious level the degree of belief you have in the position you are advocating. If you are flat and monotone, be prepared for your board to ‘feel’ that your heart isn’t in it.

Tell poignant and relevant stories. Passion by itself isn't the only necessary ingredient to getting your message across. One of the major tools you can use when talking to a board is to tell stories that prove your point.

Design support material to be released after the presentation. Board members are usually fairly busy individuals. Design your handouts to include dot point summaries of the key points you have introduced in your presentation. Give your handouts at the end of the presentation. Avoid overwhelming the board with written information unless it is part of your strategy for the board to sink in a sea of paperwork. Avoid passing documents around before your presentation, as some members will direct their attention to what is written instead of focussing on you.

Work the room as much as you can. Boards usually sit around tables and this can make it difficult to work a room:

  • Always stand when you are making a board presentation
  • Be careful to make sure all members have sight of multi-media presentations or overhead transparencies
  • Always face the board when you are talking to points projected on to a screen, only briefly looking at the screen to keep your thoughts in order
  • Avoid using a lectern
  • Choreograph your movement by visiting the boardroom prior to a presentation. If possible do a complete dress rehearsal in the boardroom so you can comfortably work the space you have
  • Inform the board how you are going to do your presentation. If you decide that questions and answers would better be left until the end of your presentation make sure that you say something along the lines of “In this presentation can we explore the proposal first and open up for discussion at the end?”
  • Ensure your presentation is not all about you. Novice speakers often imagine that if they ejaculate a stream of information at a board it will soak it up like a sponge and become instantly informed, persuaded or convinced.

It may pay you to remember that board members are people too, and that boards, like most executives in the top companies, make decisions based on gut feel before logic is applied. The usual laws of vivid evidence, inclusive language, appropriate emotional appeals and communication in ‘shared space’ apply to board presentations as much as they do to any other presentation. Boards also like the word ‘You’

Dare to be different at times. Conduct actual "show and tell" demonstrations. Rather than simply presenting reports or making presentations, take board members on a tour and explain how your new proposal will work and how it may enhance quality, safety, service and costs.

Design a memorable conclusion to your presentation. Your closing statement represents your last word on the subject matter. It’s your final opportunity to make a difference. Your last minutes and seconds in front of your board should represent a determining moment for them, a turning point where your message should culminate in a fusion of impressions that leads to the suggestion of action. Is this not the ultimate purpose of your a board presentation?

Summarise your previous spoken content, then leave the board with a few words that are memorable or make a significant impact. Using a quotation, asking a powerful question or presenting a challenging future scenario can also create the right conditions for approval or a positive impression.

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