How to talk to a non-technical board about IT investments

As you progress in your career, you’ll need to present to the board. Here's how to do it to get the things you need.

How to talk to a non-technical board about IT investments
Photo by Rodeo Project Management Software / Unsplash
I wrote this post for the ZAG blog, based on my experience presenting to the C-suite, executives, and board of directors in SME, mid-market, and enterprise organizations.

The idea of public speaking leaves many people cold. If that's you, the notion of presenting to your employer's board of directors might be outright terrifying.

As you progress in your career journey, you'll likely need to present to the board. For technical folks presenting to non-technical boards, whether it's a project update or an ask for investment, it can be a challenging experience.

How then to best approach a company board that's not technical at all? What can you do to leave a remarkable impression, to help the board make the best decisions for the company while also getting what you want?

In this post, I will share a few ideas learned from presenting to senior executives and boards in small to medium-sized businesses (and executives in billion dollar enterprises). Some of these ideas can be applied equally to your C-suite or senior management if you work in a larger enterprise.

1. It's Not About You

By their nature and legal obligations, boards take an expansive view of the company's activities. SME boards tend to be more operationally focused, and although short-term demands might have the majority of their attention, they're still looking several years into the future.

The first thing to understand is their perspective and their objectives. What are the issues that concern them? Growth, revenue, and profit, of course. What about risk? Probably. Compliance? It might depend on the industry.

Very often, we pitch the board for investment. We know why and how a solution makes sense for the business. But we shouldn't assume the board will get it. This is especially true for information technology investments. Suppose the board has little interest in IT security or is resistant to a solution such as multifactor authentication (MFA).

Since you don't have time to educate them, make sure you align your pitch with their perspective and objectives. If the board cares about risk management, pitch security solutions in that context—more on making this pitch later.

If you don't know the individual board member's perspective on issues, hurry up and ask your CEO.

2. Everything Is About Business Value

One of our clients (at ZAG) said, "The last thing we think about is technology. Tech isn't the process." Boards also think about technology differently. Tech investments are about business outcomes.

The board of directors does not care about the complexity of a solution or the technical minutia of, say, networking, SD-WAN, or SASE. But they do care about business impact and the consequences of their decisions.

Ultimately, our job when pitching the board is to help them make effective decisions.

Position your presentation in terms of business value: cost savings, improved productivity, data insights that accelerate revenue growth. Consider the delivery of competitive advantage in your market. Show them how to improve the business.

3. Language They Can Easily Understand

Presenting to the board of directors is not a time to prove you're the smartest person in the room. (Although you probably are, in your area of domain expertise.)

When presenting technology solutions, explain concepts using language they can understand. Remove the geek speak and technical buzzwords.

Also, brevity will win the day. As Albert Einstein said, "If you can’t explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." Be concise. Use storytelling to make abstract concepts more relatable.

4. Show, Don't Tell

How do you make a complex technical environment or solution relatable? Use visuals to show complex ideas. Dare I say it, PowerPoint for the win.

Let's say the board or executives don't see the value of MFA. The CEO says it's too much hassle. Show how an issue can trickle through the entire organization. For example, start with phishing and walk them through the steps that end in a cryptolocked environment, ransomware demand, and in the case of exfiltration of personal identifiable information (PII) a class action lawsuit. Then provide metrics to demonstrate the consequences, from impacted employee productivity, utilization, and lost business. Show the how, the consequence, and (only) then how technology solves the problem.

5. Help the Directors Be Smart(er)

Lastly, directors and executives spend a lot of their time "outside the business" networking and growing relationships to build the business. It's part of the job.

Help them go into those conversations empowered to talk about market and technology trends in an informed way. Help them have an opinion about their approach to trends in the context of their business. No executive wants to look like they're not across the latest Gartner trend.

Help your directors and executives be the hero in their conversations with the market.

It's About Business Outcomes

In summary, skip the technical details and translate your ask into business benefits. After all, if there are no business benefits, should you be doing it?