Ten minute tutorial – How to address the board

Nic
Paton gives you the low-down on getting your voice heard at top-level

What
is it?

However
experienced you may be, addressing the board can be one of the most daunting
and difficult experiences the modern business executive has to face. Whether
it’s getting the go-ahead for the project that has been years in the making,
defending your turf to your peers or simply being able to show you can think
for Britain, the boardroom can be one of the toughest and least forgiving of
arenas.

One
of the reasons it is so difficult is, ironically, its very intimacy. While you
will have a clear idea of who you are talking to, you will also know their
personalities, politics and views about you and your function. You might also
be concerned about the effect any presentation you make will have on your
ambitious career path.

The
story so far

Getting
your message across effectively has been an object of study since Greek and
Roman times. Aristotle in The Rhetoric, a central influence of speaking in
western civilisation, identified ethos, pathos, and logos as the three key
methods of persuasion. Ethos refers to a speaker’s credibility, pathos to
emotional appeal, and logos to the appeal of logic. As the forum of the
boardroom has gradually replaced the military and political forum, so the need
to be able to speak persuasively has become ever more important.

Boardrooms
are effectively tightly knit business clubs, the inner circle of the business.
If you’re inside the loop, fine, but if you still feel an outsider, it’ll be
all the harder to break in. A wooden, stumbling performance will come across as
unconfident and damage your prospects still further.

First
steps

No
professional speaker would dream of making a key speech without rehearsing it.
In the same way, it’s wise to search out a colleague, preferably another board
member, to sound them out. "You need to be able to go to a senior person
you can trust before your speech to make sure you are not making a fool of
yourself," says Paul Kearns, senior partner of Personnel Works.

Practice,
practice, practice – but be wary of getting distracted by technological props.
Your audience will be able to read the slide quicker than you can talk it
through, so only use it to complement your message, not be the message. And be
wary, too, of PowerPoint. There’s nothing more dull than watching someone
droning on in front of a PowerPoint presentation – and the format can be so
rigid as to cramp the important message you have to get across.

Once
on your feet

Exude
confidence, even if your stomach is going ten to the dozen. Getting the body
language right is vital. Some trainers will use videos to help iron out those
irritating nervous tics you never knew you had. Make eye contact and look
around the room. People will think you’re more confident for doing so.

Humour
can be a very effective means of communication, but only if it works. If in
doubt, play it straight. No one cringes at the memory of a simple, concise
speech.

But
if you’re confident enough, stick your neck out. A well-timed bon mot can help
composure, relieve tension and help make a speech more memorable.

By
all means, too, be passionate. Having a real belief in an issue can sway even
the sternest of critics. But pitching passion right can be tricky. Think of Tom
Hanks’ Oscar speeches or Peter Mandelson on General Election night. Or rather,
don’t. The key is knowing what your audience will not find embarrassing.

The
secret of a great speech, as well, is knowing when to sit down. The old maxim
of ‘say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you’ve said’ still
generally holds up well. And it may sound obvious, but know what it is you want
to say before you stand up.

How
to keep them listening

Keep
it short, focused, create impact and state business needs, explains Michael
Gregg, European consulting manager at global HR consultancy DDI. "Unless
you can tie HR initiatives to business needs and outputs then you have lost.
Board members will say ‘why is this person here and why should I listen?’
Unless you can put the business need they are not even going to look up from
their folders."

Talk
in terms of money and cost-savings, suggests Freeserve director of talent
Debbie Meech. Stick with the financials throughout and you are unlikely to go
wrong.

Make
sure you really understand the key issues going through each director’s mind,
argues Liam Donnelly, human resources director of HMV Europe. "You must
get to understand what those issues are and address them in a practical
business way. You must not speak in HR jargon. It’s about coming up with real
solutions for real problems."

And
Kearns adds, "If you start talking about things in a nebulous way, you
will not win the argument at board level. Some HR people take the view that you
do not have to play the accounts game. But you have to at least meet them half
way."

Winding
up

The
old advice of leaving them wanting more is only half the answer at board level.
If you follow this slavishly it may simply be that you haven’t answered the
question or won the argument. But in terms of sitting down before they start
fidgeting and rustling papers, it still holds true.

Winding
up is also an opportunity to give an overview, to show you are thinking outside
the messy day-to-day pressures of your function. "Everyone can have people
management knowledge but the HR director is expected to take a corporate look
at the kind of capability needs that an organisation will need in three to five
years’ time," says Linda Holbeche, director of research at Roffey Park
Institute.

But
it’s also wise to have a contingency plan for when the chairman barks at you to
sit down. Have a summary or a single key message to fall back on.

Verdict

Remember
the three "C"s – crispness, clarity and conciseness, and you won’t go
far wrong. The main difference between speaking to the board and public
speaking in general is the need to know the language of business. "If
someone starts talking about the p/e ratio and you do not know what it means,
your credibility goes straight out of the window," warns Kearns. Reading
the FT daily and making sure you know what the profit and loss account really
says are all vital for the aspiring HR director.

And
delivery is not just something you do during a speech, argues Clive Newton,
global head of people and knowledge at the consultancy practice of
PricewaterhouseCoopers. "If you can deliver what’s being asked of you
after the meeting, you’ll be more likely to be listened to next time."

Essential
reading

Branding
Yourself: How to Look, Sound and Behave Your Way to Success (2000) Mary
Spillane, Pan

Effective
Presentation, (1999) Ros Jay, FT Prentice Hall

How
to Develop Self-confidence in Public Speaking (1990) Dale Carnegie, Vermillion

Effective
Presentation (1998) Sarah Dickinson, Texere Publishing

Living
Strategy: Putting People at the Heart of Corporate Purpose (2000) Lynda
Gratton, FT Prentice Hall

The
Financial Times Daily Interpreting Company Reports and Accounts (1999) Geoffrey
Holmes and Alan Sugden, FT Prentice Hall

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