Finance professionals today have access to more data and information than ever before, but numbers and statistics alone won't move people to action. What they really care about is how those numbers affect them and their business.
"When you just throw facts at people, they don't tend to remember them, but if you express ideas in a more human way, then people are more likely to connect with them, remember them, and maybe take action," said Bill Shander, founder of Massachusetts-based Beehive Media and a workshop leader focused on data storytelling. "Storytelling is one of the most human ways we have evolved to connect and share with one another."
Being an effective financial storyteller doesn't have to be difficult, but you will likely need to devote more time to finding the story behind the numbers and figuring out the best way to present that information to your audience. One way to free up some of that time is by embracing automation to focus on finding and delivering key insights.
"The concept of storytelling is coming up more and more because of the focus on automation and the changing nature of what it means to be a finance professional," said Karma Auden, FCMA, CGMA, director of finance at the University of Canberra in Australia. "Storytelling is becoming essential, and it's not just within the finance team; storytelling more broadly helps create greater connection throughout the company and builds the culture you're after."
A few key steps to becoming a better storyteller, according to experts, include adjusting your mindset, understanding your audience, focusing on top insights, speaking like a human, and effectively using visuals.
Don't be frightened by the term "storytelling". The idea of "storytelling" can seem daunting, but odds are you already know how to do it.
"A lot of people hear that word and think plot and protagonist, or feel they have to come up with some sort of fancy narrative," Shander said. "To me, a story is just a linear experience that flows, and we already know how to tell stories. Everybody does; we tell stories all the time."
The key, he said, is to think of a logical, relatable way to share your insights and ideas. Start by shifting your mindset, reminding yourself that as a human being you know how to communicate, and don't overcomplicate things.
"I think people underestimate it and they put storytelling in a box and say they can't do it, but it's just an approach," Auden said. "We don't have to begin things with 'Once upon a time'. Storytelling for me is more of an all-encompassing phrase that talks about better communication. So, yes, you might have an anecdote or story to set the scene, but you're not going to have a story for every point of variance in your financial report."
Don't get lost in the data. As you're sifting through raw data, it might make sense to immerse yourself during the exploratory phase, but once you've uncovered variances, be sure to take a step back and consider key impacts.
"Remember what you really want to communicate is the idea the data has revealed," Shander said. "You may discover something incredibly important for your company or client, but if you can't effectively communicate that to your colleagues, leadership, or whoever your stakeholders are, then it doesn't matter. It's like a tree falling in the forest."
Once you have finished with the exploratory phase of analysing data, shift to an explanatory phase and boil down your findings to key takeaways. In her book Storytelling With Data, Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic recommends turning your insights into a three-minute story and then figuring out "The Big Idea". The three-minute story is the information you would tell your audience if you only had three minutes, and The Big Idea shortens that story to one sentence. These exercises should reveal the essence of your findings and allow you to build your presentation around what you really need to say.
The next step, according to Knaflic, is to create a storyboard of everything you need to say and rearrange each piece until you have a presentation with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Make sure it flows and prompts the audience to take action. Any good story has some tension, so one effective strategy is to start by presenting the problem and how it could affect your audience, and then outlining your insights and possible solutions.
Understand your audience and what they want. As you're putting together your presentation or report, it's essential to understand your audience.
"Try to channel your audience and remember what's important to them," Shander said. "What's going to motivate them and help them understand those insights? It's about translating them into a form your audience can latch onto."
Two separate audiences will likely have very different motivations, so your presentation should adjust to accommodate them. For example, Auden works for a university, and she knows the priorities of the faculties are very different to those of other functions. When she noticed travel expenditures were way down over the previous 12 months due to the pandemic, she considered her audience and understood that while the decrease helped to cut costs, it likely had downsides for each faculty.
Instead of excitedly reporting the saved costs without context, Auden told faculty executives, "We understand that travel is down, and that's impacted your ability to present at conferences and develop your research; however, it's actually helped us through the pandemic, given lower student enrolment and revenue."
In order to understand your audience, Auden said it's vital to learn more about the business operations and spend time with people in other functions. For example, if a finance business partner on her team is working with a faculty member, she has them spend one or two days a week with that faculty member so they can truly understand their point of view and the challenges they face.
Speak like a human. If you're only used to speaking with other people in the finance department, you might have a habit of slipping into jargon-heavy technical language, but if your audience doesn't understand what you're saying, they won't absorb your information.
To make sure your presentation or report is understandable to laypeople, Shander recommended explaining your insights to a friend or partner who is not in your field, or even a teenage family member.
"When you translate this complex, data-driven financial information that most people don't really understand, you're practising the skills required to transform numbers into a relatable form that normal humans can grasp," he said.
In addition to removing any jargon, Auden added that metaphors and analogies can also help audiences relate to the information.
For example, when she was presenting at a budget meeting to her audience in a more rural part of Australia, she started by saying, "Going into this budget is like driving along a country road at night. We can really only see as far as our headlights, and you never know when a kangaroo is going to jump out in front of you."
This analogy was immediately relatable to her audience and helped to draw them into her presentation, which could have otherwise been dry and number-heavy.
Incorporate visuals strategically. Visuals allow your audience to literally see what is going on in the data and can vastly improve the quality of your presentation when done well, according to Shander.
When creating a visual, such as a graph or chart, Shander recommended starting with a minimalist design and placing an emphasis on the one to three most important pieces of information. For example, if one bar in the chart is higher than the rest and that's the most important element, that bar should stand out visually, and all the other elements should be subdued.
He added that while visuals can be extremely effective, you shouldn't slap a chart on the screen if it doesn't contribute to the story you're trying to tell. As you're putting together your presentation, whether that's with PowerPoint or another application, make sure each slide is uncluttered, without too much text, and be prepared to guide your audience through the key parts of each visual or graph.
"Tell stories with your visuals," Shander said. "Don't assume the visuals tell the stories on their own."
— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.