Designing board presentations

Board presentations have a typical setting. The audience is usually relatively small and consists mainly of insiders in the company. Usually, Board papers get send around a few days before the actual meeting. Board members are experienced executives with busy schedules that want to make decisions and get to the point. They will not hesitate to urge you to move on when they think they got the message. (A big difference from a conference presentation where the audience can either walk out or check email on their mobile device if the presentation is not interesting).

The basis of the Board meeting material is usually a large slide deck full of facts and analysis. The most important recommendation is to put that aside as the basis for your presentation. Strategy documents are highly structured, highly organized, highly detailed, and exhaustive. As a result, they contain too much information, do not get to the point fast enough, and are frankly boring. This is great if you want to solve a problem, it is not effective if you want to communicate the solution.

Start off with thinking about what you want your Board to decide. Board meetings are all about decisions, not about fact sharing without a purpose. Set up the agenda, and put the decisions you want taken right upfront. The presentation challenge is now how to convince the Board that your suggested decisions are the right ones.

Every Board presentation usually has a few slides that form the stage for the group discussion. Anticipate what these slides should be and spend most of your effort on these ones. Key slides are usually those that map the possible options and shows the key trade-off that is required to chose the best one. Often, I use a heat map in these situations. A heat map is a simple table with the options as columns, and criteria on the rows. You can color the cells of the table with green, orange, or red to make the trade-off visible. Another way to show trade-offs is to plot your strategic options on some sort of 2x2 matrix, or show yourself on a 2x2 matrix now, and where you want to be in the future versus competitors.

So, the difficulty of these slides is not the design of a 2x2 or a heat map, it is picking the right criteria. Right means useful to make the right trade-off, and suitable for a live discussion in the Board. It is the latter that is the most difficult. Board members usually have strong perspectives and meetings can spin out of control if they are not managed well. Good slides are an essential part of this.

The secret is to simplify the degrees of freedom and the amount of uncertainties in the decision. There are a number of ways to do this. The most powerful one is quantification. Often it is possible to boil down different strategic options down to a single number the NPV or net present value of the future profit stream for example. This number combines assumptions about market size, market growth, market share, pricing, margins, risk, investments, (and their timing). You list the NPVs of the different options, and show sensitivities only to those variables that are controversial (risk, competitive behavior), while leaving some of the obvious ones out of the equation. What matters is not so much whether you come up with the exact NPV value, what matters is that your trade-off is right, this option is more attractive than the other one by a wide margin.

Another way to simplify beyond quantification is to group similar criteria together. Can we do it, do we have the right people, etc. all can be collapsed in one factor. The best outcome of this simplification process is to get stark trade-offs between options. That makes deciding between easier.

Once you have set up the basic argument, you can support your red, yellow, and green scores with charts. Skip the charts with obvious information that everyone knows already. Do not waste to much time re-formating highly detailed charts from the fact pack, it is an internal audience after all. Do spend time though on information that might be different from the usual. Analysis that you have done beyond the standard reports, consumer feedback from the latest round of market research, new market share data, etc. Often you know beforehand what the big controversial issues will be in the meeting. Anticipate those, and prepare charts with facts to address them.

During the meeting come back all the time to your central decision map. It might even be recommended to project your slides onto a white board so that people can stand up and scribble on your charts. It is powerful way to control the dynamics in the meeting, someone who holds the pen, speaks.

So in short, the challenge with Board meetings is not so much the slide design, it is anticipating the debate and managing the discussion.