Startups

Five Key Principles To Follow When Presenting to a Board

Commentary

By Kip Knight

Just when I was getting ready to present a key proposal at a major board meeting, a colleague who was the CFO (now a CEO) reminded me, “there is no such thing as a good board meeting—just one where nobody gets fired.”

That’s not far from the truth. I’ve seen too many self-inflicted career wounds in front of a board. I’ve seen executives go into board meetings full of confidence and come out crushed. I’ve witnessed senior leaders do such a lousy job presenting to a board that it damaged or destroyed their careers.

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It’s a real shame since it doesn’t have to be this way. I hope that by sharing some fundamental principles I’ve learned from the numerous times I’ve presented to boards (as well as watching others), you can excel when it’s time to craft and deliver your own presentation:

  • Be prepared: Just like a boxer spends one hour of training for every minute in the ring, put in the time to get ready. Your presentation needs a compelling storyline, key messages and solid evidence. Anticipate all the questions a board member might ask. Then practice enough to make sure you can present it flawlessly if someone wakes you at 3 a.m.
  • KISS the board: KISS as in “keep it simple, stupid.” I’ve witnessed too many board presentations in which you’d think the presenter got paid by the word. Follow Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 Rule of PowerPoint. A presentation should have 10 slides, last no more than 20 minutes, and have no font smaller than 30 points. Simple beats complex every time.
  • Read the room: Experts agree that 70 percent to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. Unless you’re presenting via Zoom (geez, I hope not), keep that in mind. Are board members following you, or do they seem bored?  Hostile?  Confused? If you sense any of this might be happening, pivot and figure out the issue and address it right then and there (rather than moving on to your next slide).
  • Don’t guess: You will occasionally interact with a board member who acts more like a prosecuting attorney in a murder trial. They will grill you on your presentation details and look for any inconsistencies. Be careful if this happens to you. I’ve been in meetings where the presenter guessed and was wrong, then took a significant hit to their credibility. It is infinitely better to admit when you aren’t sure of something and promise to get back to the board member within 24 hours (or sooner). When in doubt, accept it and follow up quickly.
  • Be true to your school: I’ve been in situations when there was hidden (and sometimes blatant) tension between the board and management team. This can lead to some of the more politically oriented board members trying to create a “wedge issue” (such as making a significant strategy change) to divide your management team. Don’t fall into this trap. If you’re a senior team member, your primary loyalty is to your boss (the CEO). Your management team must present a united front to the board to effectively lead the company. Team together, team apart—especially in front of your board.

Most board presentations I’ve made (and countless others I’ve witnessed) don’t have this much drama.  But rather than assuming the best, it’s better to plan for the worst when it’s your time to shine in front of a board. Be prepared, keep it simple, read the room, don’t guess and watch your CEO’s back to make sure you’re ready.

Good luck. You got this.


Kip Knight is operating partner at Thomvest Ventures. He is a board member with Netbase Quid (a leading consumer and marketing intelligence company). In addition, he’s the founder of CMO Coaches, working with professionals who aspire to be marketing leaders. Over the past 40 years, he has worked in over 60 countries around the world for P&G, PepsiCo and KFC International, and as CMO of Taco Bell. He has previously written for Crunchbase News on how to join a board.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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