I’m a runner. Last month I ran my second half marathon of the year, called the Fallen Comrades Run, on the campus of the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. I was pleased with my overall time, but I made a critical mistake. After running up and down the steep slopes at West Point, I desperately needed to stretch, but I cut my usual stretching discipline short to accommodate my friends who were eager to get out of the below freezing temperatures and go to a warm brunch.
As with any discipline, you advance from basics to the finer points by degrees, and repeated practice is essential, but a common problem is that while focusing on some advanced, finer point of your practice, you neglect a basic skill. Stretching is a basic part of good running and I blew it!
In a similar way, making a presentation to your Board of Directors is a mixture of finer points and basic skills. I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss both. So, I will start with some basic observations that apply to all presentations, and then include in each some finer points about Board presentations.
Know What You Will Say and How You Will Say It. As with any presentation, know well what you are going to say. Some people insist on writing out everything they want to say – as security against forgetting something – while others cannot stand to do that. Know your style and insist on sticking with it. If you are presenting as part of a team, accept that everyone will present differently. The best presenters are really teachers. Teachers focus everything on seeing that light of comprehension going on in the mind of the listener. If your focus is on impressing your Board with what you know, you are doing your Board a disservice. You are already the expert on your subject, that’s why you are presenting. Spread your knowledge by teaching your Board in the service of good corporate governance and a better future for everyone. Good teachers provide a framework or outline of what they will say at the beginning so that listeners know how everything will fit together before they hear it. That way, listeners will do a better job of comprehension. This is the well-known rule to “tell them what you are going to say and then say it.” In a simple way, I did this at the end of the previous section of this article by telling you I would cover the basics of presentations and then integrating some finer points about Board presentations along with those basics.
Know Your Goal. Do you want someone to approve your plan or are you simply informing the Board? Some informs are to get the Board comfortable for future approval requests or “asks,” but some informs should be simple reassurance that you are doing your job and to report promised progress. If all of your presentations are “asks” or all of them are “informs,” you have a corporate governance problem. If they are all “asks” then your Board is trying to usurp Management and run the Company. If all are “informs” then you have the wrong Board members because you don’t value their wisdom, perspective and insight into your problems. You don’t trust them.
Think Not Only About The Decisions You Want, But The Emotions Too. I remember best Daryl Hall and John Oates version of the song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” I use that song to remember that it’s not just what you say, but it’s how you say it. How do you want the Board to feel when you leave the room? When you do leave the room, the Board will always have two feelings: how they feel about what you said, that is, your content, the challenges you and they face together; and secondly, how they feel about you. How do they feel about entrusting those problems to you, specifically? Trust me they don’t want to feel like they just survived a tornado. There may be times when you have to impress them with your sense of urgency and productivity, but if you are always fighting epic battles, they may start to conclude that something is wrong at the Company that has not been properly identified and addressed. And they might just address it for you! I once sat on a Board that received regular presentations from a senior executive who was always scared beyond belief by what he saw in his numbers. After the Board convinced itself that it was looking at the same numbers squarely, and had double back-up plans in case his fears came to pass, we moved forward. We tried to reassure him that we understood his concerns and had plans, some of which we could share with him, and some we were not yet ready to share with him. However, eventually it became clear that this executive only had a panic mode, or so it seemed, so we were grateful to replace him with someone who was more balanced about risk and return. And things worked out just fine.
When you are done should they be comfortable that you have everything under control or should they be restocking their bomb shelter? If you are a chief risk officer, you will often communicate that some things are under control while other things are concerns. But you can assure your Board that while the risks may not be entirely under your control you have them under surveillance at least, pending future external and/or internal developments. If you don’t have solutions to them yet, you are working on the solutions. Tell your Board when you think you will know if the concerns are valid and when you think you will have solutions if the risks emerge as real threats to your institution. And for Heaven’s-sake, be honest. If you say one thing and your body language says something different, you will undermine the very credibility you need to solve any future problem. Once you lose credibility you have seriously wounded your usefulness to the Board and by a lot more than I hurt my next run by not stretching after that half marathon at West Point!
Know Your Audience. Ask yourself about the background of your listeners. Almost always your Board is going to be more diverse than your management team. Often we tend to focus on the one person on the Board who is the most knowledgeable about our subject. After all, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves and we want to appear smart. But this is usually a mistake. Trust me, you are smart. Otherwise you would not be presenting to the Board! If you neglect the Board members who are less knowledgeable about your subject, your smarts will be for naught, because few will understand a word you say! Invest the time and effort to bring along the Board members who are less knowledgeable about your subject matter and you will win lasting influence, support and credibility. Without that extra investment, it’s amazingly easy to lose someone.
Know How To Express Your Content. I want to start this final section with some observations on how to avoid losing your listener and to boost their comprehension.
Avoid Acronyms – My business is full of them, and I know yours is too. At a minimum, you have to define them when you first use them, but this is hardly a panacea because if someone misses your explanation or doesn’t understand it, hoping they will figure it out as you go forward, you may have lost them for the duration of your presentation. Let me give you another good reason to avoid acronyms, if you work for a large financial institution, I can promise you that several of the acronyms you use every day are used by other areas of your Firm with a completely different meaning. It’s human nature for groups to develop their own shorthand language for the sake of efficiency. When I was young, my brother and I could not only complete each other’s sentences, we could communicate with each other in front of my parents with our eyes and the smallest facial and hand movements and our parents were oblivious to the interpretation if they even noticed the signals! Specialized language is not only efficient, but it’s great for building team cohesion and confidence, however, it is completely counterproductive when communicating with persons outside your immediate team.
Provide Road Signs – Although most board members are very good listeners, because you will inevitably lose people from time to time during your presentation, help them know where you are. Hopefully, you started your presentation by stating a framework or outline of how you would cover the material. Giving board members additional verbal cues like telling them how the section you just completed fits into the framework and where you are going next, including quoting the page number you are turning to, is simple to do and surprisingly effective. When summarizing the section if you can tie the section back to how it fits in to the overall “ask” or the conclusion of your “inform,” say so explicitly. Don’t be afraid to repeat the central idea you want the Board to walk away with from your presentation. In this case, repetition is good.
Provide Multiple Hooks – This is what I have been doing with my story about my half marathon run experience at West Point. I have introduced a parallel story that is familiar to many people. Most people have run at some point and know what it means to have done something wrong. At the very least, everyone can relate to very sore muscles. This makes my content more memorable to listeners (and to readers too.) Now you can not only remember some of my more important points when you are in the same surroundings in which you originally read it, but also when you go for a run tomorrow morning. You will remember my sore muscles. If you have ever been blessed enough to run at West Point, you will remember even better. As a teacher you get super bonus points if you can pick a parallel story that is familiar or particularly relevant to your audience. This is what we are doing sometimes when we start a presentation by harkening back to a past experience we had jointly, like specific moments in the financial crisis that we and the Board went through. The more ways we can connect what we say to other experiences of our listeners, the more they will remember. This is the way our minds work. Our experiences, including the reading of this article are spread around our brains in multiple places which store different kinds of information like the time of day and location where you read this. You will probably remember the device you read it on and your emotional state at the time. All of these things are additional ways to access some of the actual content which resides in another place in your brain .
Pictures Really Are Worth A Thousand Words – Long after your words are forgotten, your pictures will live on in the minds of your listeners. Your mind is designed to retain experiences, not didactic abstractions. Not only that, you possess the extraordinary ability for me as a speaker – a storyteller – to paint the picture in your mind with words. Did you realize that it is possible for someone to read a story in a book and then later become confused as to whether or not the event actually happened to them in person or if they just read about it? That phenomenon is possible because of the way our minds are designed to store, retrieve and re-store memories. That is how well-adapted our minds are for storing experiences of all kinds as memories – even if they were not real! For many years I have given lectures in the town in which I live. Occasionally I will run into someone, at a store perhaps, who heard a lecture I gave maybe 8 years ago. They can’t remember any details about the subject, except they will remember an illustration I used, especially if it was humorous. In general, the more strange, unique or provocative the illustration, the better they will remember it. You probably don’t want a provocative illustration for your Board, but I think you get the idea!
Less is More – If you are like me, somewhere at home you have a “junk drawer.” It’s the place where you put stuff that you have no idea where else to put it. Unfortunately, there is nothing worse than looking for a small object that you believe might be in your junk drawer. When you can’t find it, you have no idea if it’s there and you just cannot see it, or if it is really not there! So you waste precious time looking in frustration. I think the junk drawer is a good illustration of why you don’t want Board presentation pages that are too dense with information. If you are an expert on the subject of the page, you love information density. It is convenient because you know how to read the page – like my brother’s secret body language – but if not, the sheer complexity of a page can discourage comprehension not only of that page, but the ones that come after it. Do not dispirit your reader. Instead, keep the page as simple as possible. Lots of empty space actually encourages your reader to have confidence in de-coding the page’s meaning.
Don’t Just Tell Them, Tell Them What It Means – My last observation on content is that you should avoid making your reader guess the meaning of your page. At one of my employers we referred to this as the “So what” statement. Giving your reader the conclusion of your page is not only helpful in that it helps them correctly frame the page’s content, assuming you have the right conclusion, but also, it helps you ensure that you have page content that is coherently supportive of your conclusion, and page conclusions which are supportive of your overall central idea. A clear conclusion for the page will help you eliminate data on the page which is not directly supportive of your conclusion. That helps you doubly succeed by employing the “less is more” principle too! In the end, forcing yourself to state a conclusion for each page, will lead to better, clearer thinking on your part, and clearer communication to your Board.
If you stick with these disciplines, I am confident that your Board will be grateful and their comprehension of your message will be greater. In the end, you will find your presentations run smoother, with less pain, and a quicker recovery. And that’s exactly what I have planned for my next half marathon run too