Presenting Data to Your Board: 6 Expert Tips


A solid data strategy is essential to be competitive. According to a recent report, companies reference data almost 80% more often in their annual reports than they did in 2017. And about half of the companies surveyed had hired a chief data officer in the past two years. – a person at C-Suite level or just below who is responsible for the company’s strategic approach to data.

“Data is increasingly an asset that carries both value and risk,” said Maria Villar, head of enterprise data strategy and transformation at German software company SAP. Given the growing strategic importance of data, it is essential that CDOs not only do their jobs well, but communicate effectively about their work. “Having an effective data strategy and then communicating it to important constituents, like your board, is key to success,” Villar said.

At the recent MIT Chief Data Officer and Information Quality Symposium, Villar moderated a panel with Ellen Nielsen, CDO at Chevron, and Denise Letcher, Executive Vice President and CDO at PNC Bank, discussing ways to develop a data strategy presentation. Panelists emphasized preparing data presentations early to reach different audiences, and the importance of connecting to key business objectives and telling compelling stories.

Although the discussion focused on communicating with boards, the key takeaways relate to any set of important stakeholders.

be ready

Start early, said Letcher, who starts working on her annual business updates two months in advance. She begins by reviewing past presentations; Letcher has been PNC’s chief data officer for nearly seven years. “I have themes that I know the board likes to hear about,” she said. “I want to make sure I get them going.”

She also works closely with other teams to refine different dimensions of the presentation. His boss provides “invaluable feedback” on high-level topics; its managers review the content; the communications team helps him create a strong presentation at the executive level.

Beyond the specific content of her own presentation, Nielsen emphasized the value of knowing where she stands during the meeting. Who should present before and after? What could be the general mood of the meeting depending on the topics under discussion?

“Typically, there are certain people who prepare content on the agenda, and they know very well what’s going on that day,” Nielsen said. She suggested finding that person and getting as much information as possible – it’s good to know what the board members are thinking when you walk in to talk.

CDOs also need to keep abreast of salient issues beyond corporate boundaries: How does data management fit into potential developments on the horizon? Letcher noted that board members, who tend to be active consumers of news, often ask how CDOs use their role to respond to industry changes. Letcher, for example, is very sensitive to the overlap between his role and future climate regulation.

Finally – it almost goes without saying – “practice, practice, practice,” Letcher said. Go through the presentation alone; test it on selected groups for feedback. Make sure you are confident in both your prepared remarks and your ability to answer questions.

Telling stories with broad relevance

It’s important to connect data and analytics work to broader business goals, Letcher and Nielsen said. Audiences like a board of directors aren’t usually interested in the details of specific projects or processes, and they don’t need to know what a CDO has been doing day-to-day or month-to-month. ‘other. Rather, they care about results – how the application of data and analytics advances business goals.

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“You want to step back and say, ‘How does data help the whole business?'” Letcher said. If a slice of data proved critical to a recent merger and acquisition, for example, tell that story and clarify the value generated by good data. You want to explain how data enables business strategy, she said.

As the audience for these presentations moves deeper into the organization – from the board of directors, to senior management, to lower management – ​​the need for detail increases. Results also become more specific: from high-level business strategy to how data and analytics support a particular unit or function. Budget questions and financial details become more relevant.

Competitiveness is another big talking point, Nielsen said. When describing the strategic role of data within your business, compare those descriptions to those of your competitors. What do you do best? In what ways do you need to catch up? When describing areas for improvement, be sure to highlight the most effective investment levers.

Regardless of the audience, Nielsen and Letcher emphasized the importance of stories and anecdotes. “I put a lot of effort [finding] the right stories to share,” Nielsen said. “I look for stories that tell new things, or where the organization tried something new and really overcame an obstacle and created tremendous value. These are the best.

Don’t forget the finer points

Along with general questions about preparing and organizing a presentation, Nielsen and Letcher provided advice on the fundamentals, from how to frame the conversation to how many slides to create.

  • Be explicit about why you are there. If you’re here to provide an update, say so. If you’re there to ask for approval, say so. Nielsen suggested that if you’re there for a “request,” give the board options rather than asking for a single outcome.
  • Allow 10-20 minutes for key messages. This means on the order of 6 to 8 slides. First present a summary with the main points. And, whatever you do, don’t read the slides. It’s “the kiss of death,” Letcher said.
  • Prepare for questions. Think about any questions you might have ahead of time. Have dates in mind so you can talk about the timeline. Don’t be afraid to ask for more time if you don’t get an answer: “I’ll get back to you” is a perfectly fair answer.
  • Do not use acronyms. If you absolutely must use one, set it first.

It’s also important to stay confident, even if people come and go or seem distracted. “Acknowledge that you are the subject matter expert,” Letcher said. “They are counting on you.”

Read next: The next chapter in analytics is data storytelling


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