Tips for delivering better board presentations

June 27, 2018

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By Rob Douglas, VP UKI & Nordics at Adaptive Insights

For many finance teams, high-level board reports are often the most challenging type of report that they put together. And, in many ways, it is because board members want so much more than numbers, such as nonfinancial information and customised analysis. Standard slide templates and data charts may satisfy some board members, but today’s finance teams need to go above and beyond in order to establish the department as a strategic partner in driving the business forward. Here are three tips for finance executives to implement today to deliver better board presentations.

Tip one: Always start with ‘why’ and not ‘what’

When it comes to preparing a board report, data is the default starting place for most finance teams. Indeed, finance executives often begin their board reports by asking what numbers they have and how they can be best presented. However, before diving into the nitty-gritty numbers, they should take a step back and imagine the board’s perspective—why are they coming to this meeting? Maybe there are strategic decisions that need to be made or business opportunities to consider, or perhaps they are eager to parse long-term trends or to right the ship when things slide off course. When the team approaches the data with the board’s perspective in mind, the presentation is both more focused and more relevant.

For instance, consider how the team might present profit and loss (P&L) data. Some of the board’s questions will likely be very straightforward, such as are revenues on track? Did we close the second quarter strong as planned? Are expenses under control? Answering those questions can be accomplished with a simple yes or no—and if the answer is yes, there is no need to spend 10 slides or 20 minutes walking through every data point.

Instead, brainstorm what actions the board might consider based on these simple questions and pony up relevant data to help them take action. If we missed our Q2 numbers, how should we adjust our summer forecast? If expenses are not well controlled, what items need to be attended to? The more the finance team can align itself with the board’s perspective, the faster and better those strategic decisions can be made, positioning the board presentations as a crucial part of business operations.

Tip two: Remember to tell a story

When it comes to telling a story during a board presentation, this does not mean spinning a yarn or sharing personal anecdotes. Rather, it means if the slides are crammed only with dry data, finance executives will be doing the board members a disservice. Indeed, the meeting will either devolve into a free-for-all of speculation, or board members will leave scratching their heads about what the data actually means.

To be a savvy presenter, finance executives should highlight the logic and narrative of why one number rose higher than expected and another moved slowly. For example, did that sales slump correspond with a competitor entering a market the company had previously dominated? Did a regulatory shift impact revenue last quarter? Has a construction delay meant lower headcount and payroll than expected?

Context is also king when it comes to narrative presentations. Board members need to quickly grasp the company’s big picture, rather than a snapshot of performance at a moment in time. A three percent sales bump is more significant if one knows whether past growth has hovered closer to one percent or 30 percent and how that growth rate compares to industry competitors. In the Adaptive Insights CFO Indicator Report titled “How the pace of finance threatens corporate agility,” nearly 60 percent of CFOs reported that their boards ask how company performance stacks up against benchmark companies.

When finance teams can logically illustrate how the business environment is impacting performance and how this compares with competitors, they are both saving time and providing value to the board. Put simply, it is this that can make finance teams more influential members of those meetings.

Tip three: Ensure credibility with an error-free presentation

Finance teams can quickly and easily kill their credibility in front of the board simply by including data errors within the presentations. When the same data point is different on two different slides, it kick-starts a conversation about data veracity and sourcing, and it can seem like the insights and analysis that follow are built on a shaky foundation. Messing up numbers is easier than many would like to admit, especially when presentations are pulled together manually and have to be double- and triple-checked for errors. On the other hand, using a presentation tool that draws from a single source of up-to-date data dramatically increases the credibility and trust the finance team has with the audience.

However, beyond presentation content, consider its design. It is easy to think of design as an afterthought or flourish, but streamlined, uncluttered slides can actually bolster credibility. In one classic study that pitted a strong speaker against a less compelling one using no slides, well-designed, or ugly slides, researchers found that well-designed slides significantly influenced the audience—regardless of the speaker’s skill. That is because how information is presented evokes an emotion—and when the audience saw crisp, professional slides they were more likely to rate the speaker’s idea as credible and worthwhile. For board presentations, creating the best slides doesn’t have to mean hiring a full-time graphic designer, but it should mean choosing a presentation tool with an intuitive interface that allows even non-designers to create professional-looking slides.

Ultimately, it is easy, in the run-up to a board meeting, for finance teams to want to focus all of their time on picking out data points and streamlining analysis. However, it is critical that they keep in mind that the way they present that information can sway everything from the conversation that follows to the board’s view of the finance function.

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