I remember walking into my first board meeting and feeling so proud of my presentation that showcased all the wonderful things marketing had accomplished over the quarter. I even put every possible data point I could find just so I could look really smart and accomplished. But instead of giving me the standing ovation I expected to receive, the board members (and even some of my peers) peppered me with questions about data points that really shouldn’t have mattered — and not in a very nice manner, either. Quite frankly, it felt like an ambush.

I walked out of the meeting feeling dejected and confused. What did I do wrong?

The answer, I later realized, was: Everything.

If you want to prevent a “boardroom ambush,” consider the meeting as a battle and prepare for it accordingly. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” This applies to the battle that takes place within boardrooms as well.

When presenting to your company’s executives, it’s a rare occasion when you get to follow a script or a plan. The best presentation is usually not fully presented due to questions and redirects from board members or functional leaders. Sometimes your presentation time can be completely redirected to focus on and solve more pressing issues such as a product delay or sales miss.

So, the best advice I can give you is not to plan, but rather to prepare:

  • Know your audience. Understand each member’s engagement level (e.g., high, medium, low) and appeal to each member’s function and interest (e.g., sales, product, finance, marketing).
  • Have a clear message. Focus on a key message — don’t just recap all the amazing things marketing has achieved over the quarter. For example, if you were trying to solve for a low overall customer satisfaction rating, focus on the customer campaign and the results that helped to address that issue. Align the message to a company goal or issue to create relevance. A great way to do this is to show the Marketing Plan on a Page, which aligns marketing strategy to corporate strategy.
  • Keep it concise. Executives have a broader perspective than others. They are time strapped and under pressure; tell them what they need to know quickly and expound upon it later. Don’t overwhelm with data; only show the insights that support your key message and never highlight data you can’t or don’t want to talk about.
  • Gain alignment ahead of time. Appeal to functional leaders prior to the meeting to ensure their alignment and support. Test your message with leaders beforehand to find any gaps or issues with your message prior to the meeting.

Executives are not really trying to wage a battle against you. Simply put, they have a job to do and your job is to help them do that job. Prepare ahead of time, help them understand your impact on their job and the company as a whole, and you won’t find yourself in the proverbial board room ambush.

For more insights about what board members expect, how to gain their confidence, and what pitfalls to avoid, please read the reports “The B2B Board Interaction Framework” and “Five Steps For Communicating To An Emerging Company’s Board.”