How to "wow" the board of directors in three minutes or fewer


Published on: August 2015

Written by: Sarah Woods

Getting the chance to speak to your company’s board of directors is exciting and daunting. 

It’s a unique opportunity to display your leadership capabilities, demonstrate knowledge of the business, and stand out among your peers.  At the same time, the very idea of pitching in front of the board can keep you up at night.  You never know what will happen when you walk into a boardroom.

Melissa, a VP, was giving her first board presentation.  Her boss had recommended to the CEO that Melissa get the board’s input on a proposed strategy to pursue a new market for a product with lagging sales.  Many board members were familiar with this market, and the team believed this pursuit was worth what would be a significant investment.  Melissa prepared for a 45-minute presentation with about 18 slides explaining the current challenges of marketing the product, the new market opportunity, cost of launch, and sales projections.  When she walked in the door, the chairman looked up, greeted Melissa, and assured her they were very interested in her topic but had fallen behind on time.  Could she cover it in about five minutes?

Like most challenges in life, preparation is a key in navigating these difficult situations.  Melissa was working with a coach who had guided her to have a three-minute version of her presentation in her back pocket.  Our coach knew that many board presentations are cut short for this very reason.  Melissa was fortunately ready to explain her “big idea” along with a brief risk/benefit analysis.  Thanks to that prep time, she had also anticipated most of the board’s questions.  As a result, she walked out not only with unanimous approval, but the confidence that comes from making a powerful impression.

Here are five ideas to help you prepare to “wow” your board the next time you give a presentation.

  1. Get your story told up front
    Boards don’t meet often, and there is much to be discussed in a limited amount of time.  Even if you have 20 to 30 minutes, boards prefer a high-level strategic discussion, and they usually prefer that it be informal.  They will take deep dives when they have questions.  That’s why you need to get the basic story told in the first three minutes.
  1. Have a “big idea”
    We guide leaders in our Speak to the Board program to develop a statement of the proposal, outcome, and benefit in 25 words or fewer.  This is a little like an “elevator pitch”–a compelling picture of a future state that explains in a nutshell why the company will benefit and what the outcome will be.  The Big Idea formula is designed to create a statement others will remember and repeat.
  1. Prepare for interruptions
    The board will not hesitate to ask questions–even in the first minute or two.  Be pleasant, clear, concise, and direct in your response.  To anticipate these questions, talk to people who know the board.  Ask them to “shoot down” your idea with typical board questions.  We often videotape “pepper sessions” to rehearse our clients and help them prep for tough Q&A.  As we like to say, we make you sweat in rehearsal, so you don’t sweat in front of the board!
  1. Know your company history
    Do your homework.  The board is not only evaluating your idea, but your strategic thinking and knowledge of the business and industry.  They want to see a command of the company’s history as well as trends in the marketplace.  Don’t be caught unaware if your company has pursued a similar approach that failed to work in the past.  The more you know about the history of your company, the more you’ll impress the board.
  1. Practice on your feet
    Though it has been said countless times, the age-old adage is true, with a twist.  It’s not just practice, but perfect practice that makes a presentation shine.  Practicing out loud is best: As you hear how it sounds, improve the flow and commit your points to memory.  Don’t memorize, internalize: Come up with a few of those memorable lines; I call them “phrases that pay.”  If you’re working with a coach, you should record the practice and critique yourself from the perspective of a board audience.
While it takes time to prepare, it’s essential. Being an expert in your field doesn’t guarantee a great presentation.  One of the greatest benefits of careful preparation is that you can rid yourself of so much of the anxiety that accompanies an invitation to speak to the board. Your poise and confidence at the front of the room is as important as the power of your ideas.

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