The language of financial leadership

Whether you are making a big speech as a CFO or having a one-to-one business conversation, there are simple ways to ensure your message is heard, says speechwriter, author, and TEDx speaker Simon Lancaster.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • How you can enhance your communication by “painting pictures”.
  • Why the use of metaphors is so powerful.
  • The “rule of three” and why it is effective in speech.
  • Ways to better engage with a videoconference audience.
  • How the language of money is changing.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Oliver Rowe, an
FM magazine senior editor, at


Oliver Rowe: Welcome, Simon.

Simon Lancaster: Hi, Oliver. It's great to speak to you.

Rowe: Now, whether you're making a big speech as a CFO, or having just a one-to-one conversation with your boss, what are the fundamentals of good communication?

Lancaster: Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, it's to remember that your audience, whether you're given a big speech or you're in a meeting or you're chairing a conference or something like that, it's to remember that your audience is human. I think it's so easy, in business, when we're dealing with numbers, we're dealing with money, to think of people not as human beings but as widgets or nuts and bolts within a machine, or something on the balance sheet. And really, the most important thing is to remember that they are human beings just like you, with needs just like you, and need to be involved just like you, and need to be admired and need to be respected, and need to be engaged and entertained, as well. So I think having all of this in mind is really the key.

You've got to walk into people's worlds, ’cause if you do this, by showing things like empathy, flattery, a little bit of humour, then you're meeting some of people's deepest needs. And in return, you'll find they're much more accommodating to your needs.

Rowe: Thank you. And telling the story behind the numbers is a key requirement for management accountants. Are there simple ways to improve storytelling skills?

Lancaster: I think the simplest tip I could give to improve storytelling is to paint pictures. When you're telling a story, you really want to transport people somewhere, you want to take them out of this, you know, basement in a conference room, or wherever it is that they are, and take them somewhere else. You can only do that if you paint vivid images with your words. So, what I would do, if you're telling a story, for instance, if you're in retail and you're telling a story about visiting one of the stores, then, actually transport yourself back to that store. See yourself walking through the aisles, chatting to the staff, you know, seeing something out of place and then going over and noticing it.

And as you then paint these pictures, people will go along with you. If you look at some of the best communicators in the world — and I mean, you know, the serious mega-communicators, people like your Oprah Winfreys, when they tell stories, you see that they actually close their eyes while they're doing it. Now, the reason they're doing that is because they themselves are transporting themselves back to the scene of their story. And if they do that, there's a reasonable chance that the audience will be able to see themselves in that place, as well. So, paint pictures. And I think this is something where, you know, particularly for numbers people, it's not just your kind of, your narrative story that you're telling, a personal story.

Frequently, finance directors need to use metaphors to get their point across. And I would urge the same advice for that, as well: If you're using metaphor, make sure your pictures are equally vivid. You know, you don't want to have mixed metaphors, where you're laying down the foundations, and then fighting and straining every sinew, and, you know, stuff like that. It's just, it's nonsense. If you're talking about, "There's a risk we're going to go off a cliff, here," then really talk about that. Say, "We've been driven over a cliff, there's a risk we're going to go crashing into the sand, here," you know, to see that image in your mind's eye. And then, again, there's just a chance that the people that you're trying to communicate with will be able to see what you're seeing.

Rowe: And are there any other ways that you can communicate effectively with an audience?

Lancaster: Yeah, I mean, the simplest trick — and I'm sure a number of your listeners already know this one, actually, but — is the rule of three. You can't emphasise this one enough. People like Barack Obama use the rule of three, like, literally, once every 27 words or so, and it makes them sound more credible, compelling, convincing, just like that. It's an ancient Roman rhetorical device, so you find it in great ancient Roman rhetoric, your, you know, "Veni, vidi, vici," almost one of the few surviving quotes from Julius Caesar. But equally, in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, we had, "Friends, Romans, countrymen." You know, now today, people will say things like, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people," "Education, education, education."

You know, it's an ancient device, but it's still so effective. There was research carried out by the University of California and Georgetown University, in I think it was 2013 or 2014, that checked three-part arguments against four-part arguments, and they found, in every case, three-part argument more convincing than four-part. So, say it in three.

Rowe: Thank you. And we're now in the economic recovery phase of the coronavirus pandemic — what type of language is specifically relevant to business leaders in this period?

Lancaster: Well, I think — I kind of refer back, a little bit, to my previous advice about remembering your audience is human. I think this advice is of even greater importance in the current situation, because everyone has been living such different lives over these last few months, wherever they are in the world. There have been profound changes to the way that all of us have lived with our families and worked with our colleagues. And so, I think really having this in mind, when you're speaking with people and they're at their homes, you need to understand that, you know, and really go in and remember that they're there, and that, you know, their kids might be downstairs, and, you know, their husbands, wives might be around, they've got all sorts of competing demands on their time in this new environment.

So, I think more empathy, more listening, if you're on Zoom, you know, the importance of just a great smile. I think communicating on technology, you know, new technologies, is a wonderful thing in so many ways. But it can have a little bit of a deadening effect when it comes to real one-to-one communication. Having a chat with someone on Zoom is simply not the same as sitting down one-to-one with someone in comfy chairs, and having a cup of coffee, and looking and seeing the whites of their eyes. People get distracted very easily when they're at home, so really remembering that you're speaking to people very much in their personal lives in this current time.

Rowe: And is there a particular language of money?

Lancaster: Yes, indeed, there is. One thing that I've noticed, which is a little bit different to the rule of three — the rule of three is a famous rhetorical device. But alliterative pairs is one that I have noticed a kind of a particular predominance of these within financial rhetoric. And so, things like, you know, "Boom and bust," "We're on the road to recovery," "Prudence for a purpose," these kinds of lines. And it may be that there's something about the sounds of soundbites like this that makes it sound as if you're balancing the books. You know, so much about accountancy, finance, is about balancing things up, your assets, liabilities, your balance sheets, all of this kind of stuff.

And so the sound of this sort of soundbite, I think, reinforces and underlines the message, "We're taking a balanced approach to this. We're looking at both sides of it." So that's one aspect that I've noticed which is particular to financial rhetoric. The other is about metaphors, and it's quite interesting the way that we conceptualise and speak about money as if it's water. And we do this all of the time, whether you're talking about companies' liquidity, or going into liquidation, or credit flows, or you talk about a credit drought, or you talk about freezing assets and turning the taps off. And this is something which is deeply ingrained as a metaphor within everyone's minds.

So, you speak within this metaphor, and people instantly understand what you're talking about: People might be drowning in debt, or in a different boat, or, you know, we talk about financial storms, and, you know, so there's a lot of water going on there. One thing that I think is really interesting, because you can see why we speak about money as water, because when you jangle coins around, it actually sounds a little bit like water dripping, or like rain coming down. And I think it's interesting that, as we move away from coins and starting moving more towards electronic means of finance, it may well be that the metaphor changes. So, one piece of language that I'm keeping a particular eye on, at the moment, is, you know, the way we talk about electronic money.

All of this, you know, there's all of these very, very ugly terms around at the moment, like, things like bitcoins and, you know, blockchains. Blockchain — I have no idea, really, how to conceptualise a blockchain; it's nowhere near as simple to visualise as turning the taps off or a credit drought. And so, mark my words, we won't be — whatever we're talking about in ten years, blockchain as a term I'm pretty sure will have died. We shall see, but it's one, it's an expression that I'm certainly keeping my eye on.

Rowe: Thank you. And finally, what would be your top three takeaways for management accountants listening to this podcast?

Lancaster: Well, really, really simple: Be human, feel like a human, and speak like a human. That would be it.

Rowe: Great. Simon, thank you very much for sharing your insights about the language we use in communication. Thank you.

Lancaster: You're very welcome. I hope your listeners found it useful.