I’ve talked to business audiences around the country for years, including speaking to groups less aware of the intricate details of financial concepts and information.
That includes sales and marketing professionals, operations managers, or entrepreneurs and business owners who have been told they should learn this stuff by a boss, a coach, or a key adviser, and so they came in order to advance their careers or their companies, or to be more effective in whatever they were doing professionally.
These are some of the nonfinance people we work with every day in our companies, on our boards, and in our daily business interactions. And they also need to understand the financial concepts that apply to their businesses, because today no one can afford to be a “nonfinancial manager”.
So how do we better communicate the particulars of financial information with our boards, our bosses, our peers, and our subordinates, both in our current jobs and as we advance our own careers?
It’s not really about how we speak to a nonfinance audience. It’s about how we communicate to an audience of professionals in other fields so they truly understand what they need to know to be effective in whatever role they play.
So how can you close the communication gap? Here are six tips that have proved to address the gap.
Avoid technical language and data minutiae. You’re not trying to show them how much you know about the topic — it’s about what they will know afterward. Focus on the big picture, and let questions tell you how far into the details to go. And if the question seems too deep into the weeds, ask the questioner to see you after the presentation for a complete answer, and move on. You don’t want to drag everyone under water because one audience member wants to go deep.
Make effective use of charts and graphs. Brains typically recognise pictures first, and then translate those pictures into information that can be comprehended. A pie chart with 20 slices, each labelled with tiny captions no one can read, is not effective in relaying information. Instead, have a pie chart show all segments over 10% of the whole and include a catch-all slice for everything else. Choose the type of chart best suited to the point you are trying to make — for example, pie chart for market share, bar chart for comparing several objects or departments, and line charts for trends.
Keep it concise and focus on the key numbers. Identify the key points you most want to communicate — not more than three or four — and provide a concise understanding of those. Save the rest for another time. For example, if declining sales trends, rising fixed costs, and labour shortages are issues, choose the one that is most urgent and make the presentation about that. Help your listeners understand how it is impacting the company and what they can do about it, and perhaps suggest a timetable.
Slow down! We’ve all seen presenters who have lots of information they want to put out and a limited time on the stage, so they speak rapidly in a rush to relay important information that the audience can’t even begin to take it in. The more complex the topic, the more important it is that you speak slowly and let it sink in before moving on. Sometimes a pause of five, ten, or even 15 seconds — what may seem like a lifetime to the presenter — is what is really needed for the audience to catch up.
Stop periodically and ask for questions. Pause in the middle of your talk and give the audience ten seconds or so to formulate a question. Listen to each question carefully. The audience will tell you if you’re getting your message out there. Sometimes it’s effective to restate the audience member’s question, not just to ensure understanding about what is being asked but also to make sure everyone in the audience hears the question to relate to the answer. For every person who asks a question, there are others in the audience with the same question who were not comfortable asking it — but still want to know the answer. Also, if the questions give you the feeling that your key point was not well understood, be prepared to restate it, or rephrase it differently to get the point across.
Give them something to take away. Whether it’s a summary of key points, a copy of the slides, or a call to action, give the audience something that will reinforce the message once they’ve left the room. Caveat: There is always an argument about whether handouts should be given in the beginning (“they’ll look at them instead of the presenter”) or at the end (“they can’t be distracted by something they don’t yet have”). Use your judgement here, but remember that some people learn best by listening and others by reading. Make sure your message and methodology reach out to both.
Finance is a difficult topic to communicate effectively to nonfinance audiences. The same can be said for scientific topics to nonscientist listeners or IT topics to most of us. Technical information is going out to a nontechnical audience.
Every company on the planet needs its people to use and understand finance at some level in order to survive and succeed. If you are the keeper of that information, you have the responsibility to see to it that others in your company have sufficient understanding to do their part in making the company successful. They don’t need to be accountants or financial analysts and able to dig out the information from financial statements — although we’d like more of our senior executives to be able to do that — but they need to know their part.
Perhaps the best person to help them do that is you.
— Gene Siciliano is a former CFO, COO, controller, and treasurer with over 30 years of experience in private practice, consulting, and corporate management. He is based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com.