Four tips to improve your financial storytelling

Finance teams

A quick introduction to some effective storytelling tips for finance professionals

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George Hood
August 30, 2023
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8
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Four tips to improve your financial storytelling

Summary

FP&A is an interesting discipline: on one hand it’s numbers based, requiring a keen analytical mind. But on the other it’s about communication, which requires an entirely different set of skills.

Communicating outside the function can prove difficult - it feels like external stakeholders speak a different language at times. But to ensure your presentations are impactful, it’s essential that you master the art of financial storytelling. Facts and figures are easily forgotten, but stories stick in the mind.

In this post, we’ll explore a few techniques you can use to do just that, starting with the first step: getting to know your audience.

Know Your Audience

One of the first steps you should take when planning a presentation is gaining insights into the background and expertise of the individuals you will be presenting to. This should include understanding their level of financial knowledge, familiarity with technical terms, and overall understanding of financial concepts.

For audiences with limited financial knowledge, you’ll obviously want to avoid technical jargon or complex financial concepts that require a lot of explanation. Instead, put things in their terms: if you’re talking to HR, you could quantify a large potential loss by talking about the headcount reduction it’d require. Being able to do this effectively requires you're as up to date on the inner workings of the company as you can be - in tune with the goals of each individual department.

Below, we’ve outlined all the different ways you might want to say the same thing, depending on the role and seniority of the person you’re speaking to. The original sentence is: “We missed our cash target due to a higher working capital requirement, primarily caused by a decrease in the inventory turnover ratio.”

Finance

Junior: We have missed our cash target due to a higher working capital requirement mainly caused by a decrease in the inventory turnover ratio.

Senior: We fell short of our cash target due to a decrease in inventory turnover, resulting in higher working capital needs.

Executive: Our cash target was misssed, primarily as a result of a decline in the inventory turnover ratio, leading to an increase in the working capital requirement.

Human Resources

Junior: We missed our goal because we had too much stock in our warehouse that we couldn't sell, as we had some absenteeism in the logistics department.

Senior: We fell short of our cash target due to a high level of absenteeism in logistics, which resulted in higher inventory levels.

Executive: The cash target was not met due to logistics department staffing being under tension for several months. This month the level of absenteeism impacted sales, and led to cash being blocked in inventory.

Sales

Junior: We missed our cash target because sales didn’t move as fast as our stock levels - so we didn’t have enough money from sales to cover the inventory.

Senior: We fell short of our cash target due to sales levels mismatch with inventory available, resulting in less cash generated vs cash blocked in inventories.

Executive: The cash target was not achieved due to sales channels not following the production cadence, which resulted in a slower cash conversion cycle.

Make it compelling

When preparing the actual content of your presentation, there are a number of factors to consider that’ll make the points you make land properly for your audience.

Start with one key message

What’s the one thing you’d want your audience to take away from the presentation? Figure that out, write a 2-3 sentence paragraph on it, and put it on a slide. This slide will serve as the focal point around which the narrative of your presentation revolves, and it’ll contextualize the rest of the presentation to follow.

Make it visual

Graphs, charts, and diagrams are your best friend. Wherever you can use them instead of just presenting raw figures, you should do so, because they’re a far more intuitive way to present information.

Get the audience involved

Wherever you can, making your audience feel like they’ve contributed to the presentation you’re giving can endear you to them - if you’re presenting figures they provided, make sure you call that out. If your audience feels involved, they’re more likely to pay attention.

Spread out your points

It can be tempting to cram all the data and points you need for one section into one slide - but it’s counterproductive. Looking at a crowded slide is distracting, and splitting your points across multiple slides will assist you in presenting your argument, and your audience in following it.

Keep it grounded

Financial information can sometimes feel detached from the broader organizational context. CFOs and FP&A leaders can bridge this gap by illustrating how the financials contribute to the bigger picture: connecting financial decisions with the company's goals, vision, and strategy.

Make it actionable

Suggesting actionable next steps is another good method for endearing yourself to those you’re presenting to. If you’re presenting a problem, you should also suggest a few possible solutions - they don’t have to be fully fleshed out, but it’ll show that you’ve thought about the implications of what you’ve presented.

Hone your delivery

Preparation is key, but once that’s done you’ll want to make sure you deliver your points in an effective manner. We’ve pulled out a number of points to keep in mind below, but ultimately the most important part of a good presentation is to rehearse.

But what else should you consider?

Show some personality

In a professional setting, it can be tempting to keep your personality to yourself - but this can lead to a presentation feeling sterile and uninteresting. But even just minor touches, like including anecdotes from your personal life, will make you seem more genuine and relatable: helping build trust and connection with the audience.

Be mindful of your body language

By maintaining open and confident body posture, making eye contact with the audience, and using appropriate hand gestures, finance professionals can establish a strong presence and engage the listeners. These non-verbal cues convey confidence, attentiveness, and enthusiasm, which contribute to a more impactful presentation.

Vocal variety

If your delivery is monotonous, your audience is likely to think your content is too. Varying your tone, pace, and emphasis can highlight important points, create suspense, or convey excitement.

Invite questions

Don’t be scared of inviting people to ask questions. A pause in your presentation where you pose a question on screen and ask your audience to discuss will make the session feel more like a discussion, and less like a lecture.

Present your point, not the slide

Reading directly from the slide is always tempting, because it feels safe. But a good presenter will know the point they’re going to make at each point of the session, and uses the slides as an additional tool to illustrate what they’re saying.

In person, virtual, or hybrid?

If at all possible, getting everyone you’re presenting to in the same room is obviously the preference. In 2023 though, that’s often not possible, so always ensure the venue you’re presenting in is set up with the right technology to support virtual attendees.

Explore asynchronous presentation methods

In addition to traditional presentations, you can leverage methods like asynchronous storytelling to deliver financial information. Asynchronous storytelling is any kind of storytelling where the presenter and audience aren’t communicating in real-time.

This approach offers flexibility in accessing and absorbing financial stories, accommodating diverse schedules and preferences. There are a few different methods that you could employ today:

Pre-recorded presentations

Pre-recorded presentations offer several advantages. They mean that you can meticulously plan and structure the content, ensuring clarity and conciseness. You can also refine your delivery, resulting in a polished and impactful presentation. Finally, people are able to view your presentation at their own leisure, giving them time to consider the content in as much detail as they’d like to.

Start a Slack/Teams channel

Not everything needs a meeting. It’s possible to present detailed points in collaboration tools like Teams and Slack, which have endless integrations and tools available. If you’ve got a regular meeting in which you present routine results, it might be that your audience would appreciate the time back.

Online tours

Tools like Pigment are designed to help you tell stories. Boards can be configured to show information in an incredibly flexible manner, so if you’re giving a presentation, why not share a board you’ve prepared ahead of time and ask attendees to explore it before? That way, they can interrogate the data themselves and come prepared with questions.

Next steps

As finance continues to evolve and take more of a strategic advisory role within the business, your ability to tell a good story is going to become even more important than it is already.

If you’re looking for more advice, check out this webinar from the first edition of FP&A Week: https://fpaweek.gopigment.com/improve-financial-storytelling-skills

If you’d like to sign up for the upcoming edition of FP&A Week, that’s available here.

And if you'd like to explore books that can help you further, we've picked a few of our favourites for you below.

Books:

  • The Storyteller's Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don't by Carmine Gallo
  • Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World's Top Minds by Carmine Gallo 
  • Data Story: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story by Nancy Duarte
  • Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte
  • Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
  • Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte
  • Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez

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