How to Handle a High-Stakes Presentation to a Board of Directors

Here's a favorite story of "John" who was preparing for his first appearance before his Board of Directors. He was about to ask for approval to acquire land for a new plant. A big ask.

In the early part of my career, I gave my share of presentations in scary board rooms, just hoping I was making sense. These high-stakes presentations can chill even the most senior executive to the bone.

Many presenters hamstring themselves by thinking they have to use a lackluster slidedeck to show they really know what they’re talking about. Why? Because that’s “how it’s always been done.”

I once heard someone say that, “Only rookies are bold enough to make slides interesting, the rest of us have fallen into the status quo trap.”

What if you want to “go rogue” instead of settling for the status quo?

Case study: going beyond the jam-packed slide deck

Here’s a favorite story of “John” who was preparing for his first appearance before his Board of Directors. He was about to ask for approval to acquire land for a new plant. A big ask.

John was struggling with a PowerPoint deck crammed with small numbers.  He said to me, “Board members expect me to use this format.  Everyone does it this way.  I have to show that I’ve done my due diligence.”

“Really?” I asked,  “Would you have been promoted to this position if they didn’t think you knew your stuff?  You’re not interviewing for the job. You already have it. Give the Board the gist of what they need to know.  That’s what they’re hoping for—not another boring presentation.”

Set aside the slides

What I coached John to do was to set aside his slides and tell me the story of the numbers in plain English. Overall, how were numbers trending since the last Board Meeting? Why did the international numbers look bad? What was the forecast?

I asked him, “If you were shave this 15 minute presentation down to a 10 minute executive summary, what crucial pieces would you include?”  He made his choices.

“Now, go back and humanize the presentation with a mini-story, the names of real people or an analogy,“ I said.

John thought of an interesting historical note on the land acquired for a new plant, and a unique geographical  feature of another. Just by using colorful word choice, he enjoyed the presentation more, which translated into more interesting energy for Board members.

Finally I suggested that he go back and use a small handful of clean slides that would help him tell that story with color photos and simple bell curves; and make the complete deck available to Board members in a handout.

John called me after his presentation to me he had been a hit.  “You know what?” he asked, “Not a single Board member asked for a copy of the entire deck!”

Bring your heart into a mind-filled room

It’s an easy trap to imagine that as a speaker, your job is to be brilliant and prove it with data. But the message that strikes us most deeply will never be about your IQ. It will be about the conversation, humanization, meaning and value you brought to our world. Sure, the Board may not say it, but they’ll feel it. And that’s enough.

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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.