How to win over your board when presenting data

 

If the thought of presenting to the board of your visitor attraction leaves you lying awake at night, you’re not alone. It’s a daunting situation – presenting to a formal senior panel, in a make or break moment, representing months of work in a few minutes. If you’re heading up a data initiative, those sleepless nights are inevitable. The nature of these programs often concerns the board, given this group is intentionally structured separately from the organization’s operations, a dynamic relying on data to assess performance and manage risk. With their purpose to sustainably govern strategic direction, boards must be insight informed.

Being insight informed doesn’t just mean receiving a list of metrics. It requires a curated view to take meaning from the depth in these. The irony in the complex domain of big data analytics is that the hardest part of the job – extracting insight to inform strategic decisions and communicating that inspirationally – requires little technical skill. The higher up the food chain the audience is, the harder this job becomes. The equation to master this is a focus on the right problem with a distilled story and utter transparency.  

 

Focus on the right problem

When it comes to capturing the board’s attention and imagination, ensure your topic aligns with their purpose. Before you present, step back and ask yourself: ‘Are we telling the right story? Answering the right question? Focusing on the right problem?’. Put yourself in their shoes – what is the single biggest dilemma your organization faces? If what you’re about to deliver doesn’t relate, look at it from a different angle. Challenge your team with, ‘So what?’. 

Boards don’t want just a running performance commentary, updates about a project or sign off on spend. What they really want are insights that inform the complex decisions they make to govern the organization’s place in the world and the place of this in time. These decisions are about mission, sustainability and risk, so be relevant to at least one and open with that. Don’t underestimate this part of the job – it’s difficult to leap from executing with a team on the ground to extracting macro level insight that challenges decision makers at the highest level, so spend an appropriate amount of energy on it. 

 

Distill the story 

Driven by the nature of a board’s role to set the course and scan the horizon, this group soars at 30,000 feet to avoid getting lost in the trees. Yet it is natural when fronting to a board to want to start your story at the beginning, build from the details of where you’ve come from and what has been done, explaining technology in depth. Resist the temptation – you’ll lose them. When conveying your message to a board, be a plot killer. Tell them the end of the story before you begin and go from there. 

Once you’ve got your story: distill, distill, distill. An easy way to do this is to start with 10 slides, chop your presentation to 7, then 5, then 3 (you can always refer to the full version later), iterating with practice presentations to your internal team. The titles of your slides should easily convey your story as you step through it. It also helps if you also have one quick fact on each page – a number that speaks for itself, one board members can refer back to as the basis for their decisions. Keep the rest of the slide visual, preferably with illustrations – if you need to, include imperfections such as assumptions as a footnote. Again, this skill is a tough one to master: few can paint a complex problem simply for others, but that’s what boards require.

 


Win respect by being transparent

Things really get tough when sharing bad news. Perhaps visitor numbers are down, or a new digital initiative hasn’t had the desired adoption. A common situation we see leadership teams face in visitor attractions is when the first major finding of a glamorous new data program is that a key statistic (such as visitorship) has historically been calculated incorrectly. In these circumstances, lead with a positive outlook (celebrate a win or focus on the success of the big picture) but rip the plaster off fast. It will feel uncomfortable at first but ultimately win respect.

Burying bad news in the back of a board report creates a habit of directors reading back to front and not trusting the story they’re presented – so don’t dress it up, don’t shy from the numbers: just state the facts. Separate who you are from what you do and how you do it, knowing you are not your data – it is your tool. Transparency is always a surprisingly comforting relief, probably because a problem shared is a problem halved. 

Boards hate surprises, so get out in front of the bad news in advance of the meeting, even in advance of your report. It helps if you’ve made a habit of actively involving the board in strategy setting rather than just review and if the tone of your board meetings focuses on discussion rather presentation. To encourage this when delivering bad news, provide a solution rather than just the problem and options in addition to your recommendation. This taps into the mindset you bring to your board presentation – ideally, you’ll look to your board as the ‘brains trust’ for guidance on a dilemma, rather than as a committee to convince on a decision you’ve predetermined. 

If all else fails and extracting useful insight into a distilled and transparent story is proving impossible, pick a board member you have a strong relationship with and ask for their help to coach you on how to get the most out of your presentation. Your board wants to see you succeed and most will leap at the opportunity to add value – especially in a way that makes their job easier. 

 

The best boards will challenge your thinking, shift your perspective and may send you out with a different mindset than the one you came in with. That starts with a shared view of data, insight and the story it tells. And who knows – one day, you might find yourself on the other side of the table.