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The Three Biggest Presentation Mistakes in the Boardroom

Updated: May 27

Board presentations are like no other—they have the distinct honor of being unanimously frustrating for the speakers and the board alike. 

Board members complain they don’t get what they need. Presenters leave exasperated with a Sisyphean task: No matter what they do, criticism abounds and they are back to square one the next time. In fact, Carl Icahn famously said, “I sit on a lot of boards. I don’t have to watch SNL anymore. I just sit at the board meetings.”

It does not have to be this way. 

You were asked to present for a good reason—your board needs to hear what you have to say. So before sifting through a mountain of data points and struggling with a complicated deck, be sure to avoid the biggest drivers of disconnect between executives and directors at board meetings. 

1. Not enough interaction 

Have you ever stuffed a suitcase to the seams only to realize you forgot an important item and had no way to make room for it? When it comes to board presentations, that all-too overlooked item is time for interaction with the board. When you present to your board, regardless of the topic, your purpose is not just to share good information. It is to promote higher level thinking. 

Board members often voice appreciation when a presentation helps to level up a discussion. One of my clients described it as a “breath of fresh air.” To accomplish that, you need productive interaction as a key component of the presentation. 

I once had a client who sat on several public boards. He maintained that the phrase board meetings is misspelled: they should be called bored meetings. With the waning attention spans of even the most sagacious professionals, this is no surprise. Interaction fosters engagement, especially among those who share ultimate accountability.

It may be tempting to cram your time slot with all the expertise you can muster to impress the board members. However, hosing them down is not helpful, so leaders miss the mark. 

The notion of more interaction may sound scary. A senior executive once confessed, “I don’t want to give them a chance to attack.”  Other executives feel that given free reign, board members will derail the discussion with off-topic comments or questions. But showing up as a strong leader involves welcoming the tough questions. According to research by Corporate Board Member and EY, boards feel one of the most effective ways they can support leaders is t “Provide effective challenge… asking tough questions and being skeptical when needed.” Directors often see tough questions as a way to make an idea stronger and shed light on potential blindspots.

So make sure to factor in plenty of time for Q&A and discussion. If you have a 30 minute slot, leave at least 10 -15 minutes for discussion. This is not something you want to rush. 

Kenneth Freeman who has sat on the boards of Quest Diagnostics and TRW, among others, advises “framing agenda topics with questions where board feedback and insights are desired”. Your CEO can be helpful in this regard.

2. Too dense

Most board presentations are too dense—crammed with unnecessary details and too many slides. Remember, board members aren’t there to roll up their sleeves and get into the weeds with you, and they don’t like being expected to do so. As one board member told me in frustration after a particularly exhaustive blow-by-blow presentation, “we are there to guide and decide, not to do”. 

Another effect of density—speakers start reading off the slides, turning the presentation into a glorified audio version of the pre-read. Your presentation should add color, texture and context to the slides. Share your perspective and thought journey. Data by itself can be interpreted in many ways. As the expert in the room, your job to extract the meaning and ramifications.

Remember, many board members sit on several boards and may not specialize in your space. Therefore, they won’t follow insider vocabulary or details. A board member of an S&P retail company once quipped that he should bring his grandson to the meetings to translate the “tiring, tone-deaf tech talk”. 

While boards continually race to keep up with growing trends, it is not their job to know your job specifically. You need to make the presentation understandable for a variety of comprehension levels. Although you don’t want to talk down to them, make sure to avoid jargon, technical details and tangents. 

One way to hit the sweet spot is to keep the presentation relatively high-level and put detailed data in the pre-read appendix. Some board members go deep and detailed into the pre-read. Some merely flip through. Give them the choice.

3. Not focusing on a core message

One of the first questions I ask a client about to give a board presentation is, “What is your core message?”  It’s surprising how many executives, (sometimes even CEOs) struggle to answer clearly. This can sink a presentation.

A senior leader once told me, “I’ll just give the board the most important information and let them decide what to do with it.” Wrong. I’ve heard from board members over and over again that key leaders present a lot of info, but what was the point?  In fact, I once asked Jim Yong Kim, former President of Dartmouth College and the World Bank, what advice he’d give to leaders presenting to their boards. He replied with characteristic clarity, “Remember when it comes to your role, no one has the expertise you do. You have tremendous influence.” The way to leverage that influence is with a clear and meaningful core message. 

In general there are four categories of reasons to give a board presentation: give a regular update, share a report that affects a looming decision, weigh on some aspect of a crisis, seek approval for a budget or project. Each one of these reasons calls for its own kind of central message or theme.

Regardless of your reason or combination thereof, the big takeaway(s) of the presentation should be crystal clear and stated at the beginning. Unlike the movies, big reveals at the end of a board presentation don’t work well. Board members don’t like to wait and they don’t like to be surprised. So, start with your conclusion, then elaborate. 

Another factor to consider: Boards have to deal with greater volatility now than any time in recent history, along with a new crop of concerns, ranging from cybersecurity to AI and precarious geopolitics. You can create a productive partnership and gain goodwill by highlighting the risks and ramifications of any decision they make. While you do so, be transparent. If it appears you are trying to gloss over something to protect yourself or further your individual agenda in one area, it can potentially rob you of credibility in all other areas. Show them what you think, how you got there and why your way is the best option.

So what’s your win-win process? Look at your board’s needs, pain points and burning questions. Next, hone in on your core message for the presentation and reverse engineer from there. Not only will you make your life easier, but your board members will thank you. 


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