'Never ask a question if you don't know the answer is yes': How to present to the board

Need to make a presentation in front of the CEO and executive team? Here are some top tips on how to make a persuasive case for IT projects.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on
"A board presentation is a massive opportunity to guide and influence," says Alastair Behenna, consultant at The CIO Partnership.
Image: Shutterstock

You might not have joined the IT industry to give PowerPoint presentations, but rise to the senior echelons of the industry and you will be called on to speak in front of the chief executive and the C-suite team.

We ask five IT leaders how they convince their senior bosses about the value of a project. What is the one piece of advice that is absolutely crucial for any senior IT professional who is about to present to the board? Read on for the answers.

1. Craft your language for the right audience

"A board presentation is a massive opportunity to guide and influence. Pre-sell as much of it as you can. Keep it simple by knowing your audience, using their language, and then craft your approach accordingly," says Alastair Behenna, an experienced IT leader and consultant at The CIO Partnership.

One issue to bear in mind is how expectations of technology have been altered by the consumerisation of IT.

"Users have been seduced by the ease and simplicity with which they can download an app and use it to meaningful purpose. We live in an app-centric world, inhabited by people with a short attention span and with their fires stoked by expectations of performance, simplicity, usability, and - most importantly - cost."

Behenna says the level of expectation associated to IT has ratcheted up exponentially. And the associated democratisation of technical knowledge has upped the pressure on CIOs to present concisely, consistently, and with absolute clarity to the board.

"Apply the well-tested psychologies of usability, customer and user experience, and employ the best of those methodologies. Keep the detail in the hand-out you distribute to the board before the presentation, and use your allotted time wisely and precisely to paint a compelling picture and story," says Behenna.

"Explain what it is you want to achieve from the presentation, when you want it by and what will happen if you don't get it. Be confident and close out with an unmistakable call to action."

2. Get board members to talk more than you do

Andrew Abboud, CIO for hospitality and culinary at Laureate Education, advises his fellow senior technology peers to do their homework. "Find out what level of support the project has from each member of the executive team," he says.

Sponsorship can be crucial, so also discover which members of the C-suite are likely to offer their backing. "If you can, enlist some of them to be your allies," says Abboud, before offering some best practice communication tips for CIOs who present in the boardroom.

"Don't talk about technology, focus instead on business outcomes. And use silence smartly. Don't feel like you have to fill an uncomfortable lull in your presentation. The real trick is to get board members to talk a lot more about the proposal than you do, as they will then genuinely engage in the decision-making process," he says.

"The crucial piece of advice is very simple: be prepared, which is the motto of every great athlete. And if you cannot convince the board to approve an investment, one potential angle is to steer the conversation from questions about the cost of investing to the cost of not investing, and the potential business consequences."

3. Focus on valuable projects that have secured buy-in

Above all, do not get swayed by the bits and bytes of a potential IT project. Stephen Hand, former CIO and principal consultant at Consult 360, says great presentations focus purely and simply on business benefits.

"The content of the presentation should just focus on what the project delivers in terms of business value, and what are the critical success factors that will enable this initiative to be delivered successfully," he says.

However, Hand says the critical piece of advice for all CIOs is to have actually secured the buy-in of all key stakeholders before the actual presentation even takes place. "Never ask the board a question if you don't already know the answer is 'yes'," he says.

4. Speak with confidence and be commercially-savvy

Chris Chandler, head of the CIO practice at recruitment specialist La Fosse Associates, says the justification of potential commercial benefits is fundamental to ensuring other executives buy into a project.

"Speaking their language, and knowing what the competition is doing, is vital when it comes to getting the board to listen," he says. Once the C-suite has the CIO's ear, the successful sale of a change programme requires a focus on financial and operational benefits.

In short, Chandler says CIOs must approach the boardroom with confidence and knowledge. "No one will argue with a revenue driving or cost saving initiative that has little or no immediate opportunity cost attached," he says.

5. Take time to be clear, concise, and consistent

Mark Bramwell, CIO at the Said Business School, says the role of the modern CIO is more like a relationship builder than a technologist. He says IT leaders hold a privileged, cross-business position and should be able to work with and influence people at all levels of the organisation, including the boardroom.

"I've always found the executive board is pretty switched-on when it comes to IT and potential projects," he says. "They don't need waffle and they don't want 20 PowerPoint slides. They want to know what the proposal is, how much it will cost, and they want tangible facts."

Bramwell says that the CIO will be viewed as the leader of technology within the business. He says the executive board is often looking for a recommendation regarding IT implementation. While a clear and factual presentation will not guarantee success, it will undoubtedly help.

"The CIO needs to be able to demonstrate the kind of difference that a system or service will make," says Bramwell. "As a CIO, you need to think carefully, do a great job of presenting, and the business will see the value you can bring. It can also help in regards to making IT investment cases in the future, too."

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