Selling tech initiatives to the board: Eight success tips for IT leaders

Convincing the board that a project or technology investment will benefit the business can be an uphill climb. These tips will help you convey the value of your proposed initiatives.

Why CIOs need to be more responsive to business needs

Several years ago, when I was on the board of a startup SaaS company, I made it a point to have lunch with the new CIO to get acquainted and to brief him on what board meetings were like.

I had spent time as a CIO and a senior IT manager in my own right--and I knew that no matter how committed you were to a certain technology project or direction, or how comfortable you were when you discussed it with management, presenting to the board was another matter.

Board presentations and discussions can be stressful, especially if you cut your teeth in the technical trenches. You might not know the board members well. And then there's your boss, who has their own expectations as you begin to speak. All of these elements form a political backdrop for your most important goal: a persuasive argument in favor of a technology direction or project you believe will benefit the company.

What's the best approach for an IT board presentation? Here are eight steps.

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1. Get to know the board members

By getting to know board members individually and before you present to them, you can achieve a rapport that makes presenting to them in a more formal setting like a boardroom easier. Its also helpful to know board members' backgrounds and interests. Are they venture capitalists, or technologists, or lawyers, or school teachers? The more you know about them, the easier it will be to tailor a presentation they can relate to--and the more they relate to your presentation, the easier it will be to sell your idea.

2. Take the time you need to develop a strong presentation

Too many IT leaders, especially if they are busy running multiple projects, underestimate how much time it takes to put together a really persuasive presentation. Some of the most compelling presentations are those built around a demo of the technology being discussed or those with a strong video presentation that draws the audience into the topic. However, demos and videos aren't going to help if you don't have a clear and cogent message for board members who are charged with ensuring that the company is well run, is making the right kinds of investments, and is positioning itself for the future. If what you present doesn't check all of these boxes, it won't succeed.

SEE: How to avoid and overcome presentation glitches (free TechRepublic PDF)

3. Practice

Presentations come off best if presenters speak in an easy, natural manner, make eye contact with the audience, and don't overly rely on notes. By practicing your presentation multiple times before you deliver it, you can avoid depending on notes. You'll reach a point where you know your material so well you can interact with your audience and see whether they're staying with you. If you sense you're losing them, you can make adjustments to regain their interest. All the great classroom teachers understand this. You have to be able to "control the room."

4. Anticipate the questions that will be asked

It's a good idea to dry run your presentation with others before you give it. They can give you pointers on how you are presenting--and they can also help you identify the questions that are likely to be asked by the board. This is an extremely useful exercise The more you identify questions you may be fielding, the better prepared you will be.

SEE: Over PowerPoint? Here are 4 ways to create more interesting business presentations (TechRepublic)

5. Don't try to wing it on questions you're not sure of

I have known CIOs and IT leaders who don't like to acknowledge an area that they might not have a ready answer for, especially if the area is technical. The truth is, no one can know everything about a given technology or business issue, no matter how astute they are. If a board member presents you with a question and you don't know the answer, defer it. Note the question and tell the board you will get back to them with the answer in a follow-up.

6. Speak in plain English and stick to business

It's easy for a technology leader to get mired in tech talk and lose an audience. The board already knows that you know tech. What it wants to know is how well you understand the business and how tech can advance it. The best way to show them that you're focused on the business is to present a clear message in plain English and to avoid technology buzzwords and levels of detail that are extraneous to the business decision that has to be made.

7. Don't overstay your welcome

If you're given 30 minutes to present, time your presentation so it concludes between 22 and 25 minutes and leaves time for questions. Your audience will quickly tire if you run too long, and that could jeopardize the advancement of your idea.

8. Always have a backup plan

Last year, I attended a presentation by a salesperson for a major international technology company. They were relying on demos and video technology for the presentation and the equipment failed. Although a bit nonplussed, the presenter handed out paper slides and we followed along. It's critical to have a DR plan for your presentation in case something goes wrong.

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Other suggestions?

What advice do you have for business leaders who are pitching tech initiatives to the board? Share your suggestions with fellow TechRepublic members.


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