So you’ve been asked to present to the board. Here’s how to wow them in a matter of minutes

March 17, 2023, 11:26 AM UTC
A man in a business suit smiles as he talks to a woman in a boardroom
Don't talk at the board. Ask questions and invite people in.
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Good morning! Before jumping into the second half of our guide to board presentations, I want to bring your attention to some of Fortune’s stellar reporting on the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. Jump down to In Brief for more.

So you’re going to present to the board. That means you’re “kind of a big deal,” as we reported in part one of this guide. Your CEO may want the board to become familiar with you as a high-potential employee, and engaging with the board may be your stepping stone to a board seat. 

Last week’s newsletter discussed the prep work before a board presentation. Now we’re looking at what happens once you’re in the room.

Keep it brief and make it a dialogue

First-time presenters are notorious for overwhelming the board with information, writing long slide decks, and reading from them. Remember, don’t get bogged down with details. “Think about the three most critical messages you want to deliver and manage time so that you are not rushed to the point where you’re speaking too quickly or sound incoherent,” says Sophia Ononye-Onyia, a director at Daré Biosciences.

Plan for the conversation you want, says Jocelyn Mangan, founder and CEO of Him for Her and a director at Papa John’s. “Good board meetings are heavy on discussion and less on show-and-tell.”

– Shimi Shah, a director for The Royal Mint in the U.K., suggests eliciting questions at the beginning: “I’m going to assume you’ve all read the board book. Is there anything you would like me to highlight or any questions I can address in my presentation?”

– Jeff Wong, global chief innovation officer at EY, will share credit with his fellow executives and invite them to jump in when appropriate. To a CFO, he might say, “We worked with your team to be really thoughtful about how we calculated the ROI on this. Do you want to offer some thoughts on the method we used?”

– Scott White, chair and CEO at Invesque, engages non-executive board members: “I know our net operating income is down in part because of wage growth. Have you seen that in your business? How are you dealing with it?”

Normalize your anxiety—or leverage it

You’ve practiced your presentation—for the corporate secretary, your dog, a mirror—and you know your material inside out, but you’re still nervous the day of. That’s normal. Do not pile on to your anxiety by judging it. Don’t ask why you’re nervous when you’ve given dozens of talks. “It’s a different group, and it’s obviously a group that watches the senior executive team to see what is our succession plan and who’s super talented?” says Lisa Edwards, executive chair of Diligent Institute. (Diligent sponsors this newsletter.)

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and Barnard College president, has shared brilliant research-backed tips for managing your anxiety. For example, think about something else in the 15 minutes or so before your talk because reviewing your material until the last minute might lead to overthinking and paralysis. Also, reframe the signs of anxiety in your body—a racing heart, sweaty palms—as manifestations of your excitement.

Rich Fields, head of the board effectiveness practice at Russell Reynolds, sees your stage fright as a positive sign. “Those nerves can be beneficial because it causes you to do the necessary work and preparation to knock it out of the park.”

It might also be helpful to remind yourself that “if you’re there, you have reason to be there. You deserve to be there,” says Mangan.

What to say when things go wrong

Have a go-to line ready in case of a stumble. Perhaps it’s, “Just give me a minute while I gather my thoughts,” says Shah. “Breathe, concentrate on where you are, and then get back into it.”

Be authentic

What vibe should you bring into the room? Your own, says Ononye-Onyia. That’s how you build trust. “I’m a smiler, one of those naturally bouncy people,” she explains, “while the classic female scientist is more cerebral, more thoughtful, more introverted.” 

Some presenters are storytellers, and some stick to the data, says Shefaly Yogendra, a director on several boards, including the JPMorgan U.S. Smaller Companies Investment Trust. Some people joke around, and others are serious, she adds. “If you feel your style doesn’t quite gel with the style of the board, there’s nothing wrong with it. That is an illustration of diversity.”

Don’t add qualifiers

Avoid self-deprecating remarks and apologies—especially if you’re a woman. “Women tend to have less confidence, especially women of color because you’re often one of the few in the room,” says Ononye-Onyia. Also, avoid qualifying your sentences, says Mary Beth Vitale, a longtime director and faculty member for the National Association of Corporate Directors. Women often preface their opinion by saying, “I don’t know if everybody feels this way.” Instead, say, “My research shows this is the situation.”

When the board asks questions, don’t panic

When directors ask questions, it can feel like they’re out to get you, says Edwards. But people just want to be informed. Between Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, cyber risks, and more, directors have multiple issues to deal with at once. Many are taking courses in emerging topics, so they may “poke in places they didn’t before,” Edwards says. “It’s all with good intentions.”

Some questions will come from the wrong place

“Our job is not to insult or humiliate you,” says Yogendra. However, she admits you may run into somebody trying to trick you. “You don’t have to go to every fight you’re invited to. You can always put some space between the stimulus and the reaction by saying, ‘Can I come back to you on this?’”

But before you search for extra information, check in with the CEO, says Douglas Chia, president of Soundboard Governance. Board members may ask for things in a meeting and not remember making the request the next day. The CEO will be sensitive to which asks are worth your time.

Quick tips:

Develop a pre-game ritual. To get into the presentation mindset, EY’s Wong eats “a bunch of chocolate.”

Be prepared for questions related to news events. The board is well-read, says Edwards.

– Don’t contradict your colleagues. Your CEO should have called a pre-meeting to ensure team alignment. Once you’re in the room, it’s too late. “If I’m seeing the team having uncomfortable conversations and fighting in front of me, what are they doing when they’re not in front of me?” says Ashley Kramer, CMSO at GitLab.

Expect a range of behaviors. Boards are known for being intense, but you can expect disruptions. One director might leave the room for a call and another might be clicking around on their laptop—although it’s rare these days, someone might fall asleep, says Chia.

Get the inside scoop on directors’ pet issues. Is there someone obsessed with cash flow instead of growth? Who is most likely to have objections?

Sit, stand? It’s your choice. But be aware of power dynamics, says Ononye-Onyia. While every board is different, the chair or CEO usually sits at the head of the table, with their right-hand man or woman literally to their right. New board members typically sit at the other end. 

Be on time. Don’t force the board to look for you, says Chia. “You’re just going to make yourself look bad.” And clear your calendar for the day because board schedules change, Fields adds.

Respect time limits and stay flexible. The board’s time is carefully allocated, and agendas are jam-packed. Presenters should respect that. You should also be flexible, says Edwards, and prepare a version of your presentation that’s half as long as the original, just in case.

Read the room. Wrap up quickly and move to questions if people look disengaged and bored, says White.

Leave quietly. If you’ve been invited to stay in the boardroom for other presentations, do it. That’s a learning opportunity, says Edwards. Otherwise, leave the room quietly when you’re done, says Vitale. “They’re going to go right on to the next topic.”

Ask for feedback. Ask the person who invited you to the meeting how they think it went, says Mangan. “Nobody gets it right the first time they do something.”

That’s all! Or is it? Please let me know what we missed by writing to me at the email address below. Enjoy your weekend.

Lila MacLellan


Microsoft has a new board chair: Sandi Peterson, an independent director on the board and an operating partner at the private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, will replace John Thompson, who has chaired the board since 2012. Two GE directors—Francisco D’Souza and Leslie Seidman—will step down following the company’s annual meeting this year. Darren W. McDew, retired U.S. Air Force General, and Jessica Uhl, former CFO of Shell, will join the GE board. Northrop Grumman elected two new board members: Kimberly Ross, CFO of WeWork in 2020, and Mary Winston, a finance and corporate governance consultant who was the interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond in 2019. Marriott International appointed Lauren Hobart, Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO, and Grant Reid, former Mars CEO, independent directors. Jennifer Zhu, a principal at Golden Gate Capital, will join the Mosaic board.

In Brief

- Is “DEI-hushing” next? Here's why corporate leaders need to push back against Republican claims that diversity goals played into Silicon Valley Bank’s demise. 

 - A University of Chicago business professor tells Fortune that SVB “deployed just about every bad policy on both the assets and liabilities sides of its balance sheet.”

- Boards and board members could face liability claims if a company's funds are trapped in a bank seized by the FDIC. In this blog post, the law firm Foley & Lardner outline three steps boards can take to help mitigate risks.

- Latino executives aren’t landing board appointments, even as more companies progress toward diversifying their leadership.

- Poor onboarding is a bigger driver of employee churn than you’d guess—especially when your hires are remote.

- Why do some companies outperform the competition during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, while others seem to learn nothing? BCG researchers say the difference is “institutionalized resilience.”

This is the web version of The Modern Board, a newsletter focusing on mastering the new rules of corporate leadership. Sign up to get it delivered free to your inbox.

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