Good data-driven storytelling requires finance leaders to be more picky and creative when presenting data to their business partners.
That was a central recommendation from data visualization expert and Excel MVP Jordan Goldmeier, and Datarails FP&A leaders Christian Wattig and Annette DeYoung in an on-demand webinar, “FP&A storytelling with Data.”
In particular, the three panelists set out a playbook of six different areas to hit the mark when it comes to choosing the right data and presenting it more creatively.
1. Less is more!
“Less can be more,” Goldmeier said in the Datarails webinar. “Go through and knock out everything but the key point, even when it’s painful. You can always go back and see what it looks like when it’s down to its bare essentials… That’s what makes a tight, good story.”
2. Have key takeaway points in mind
Ironically enough, the more data there is to present, the better it is to keep it short and simple. This ensures that everyone comes away with the main points without getting lost in the details. But many finance professionals struggle with this. Keeping it condensed can be harder than creating a long, detailed presentation.
As the famous Mark Twain saying goes “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter so I wrote you a long one.”
Goldmeier has a lot of experience in presenting complex visualizations to all kinds of audiences, thanks to his multifaceted career as a data scientist, data visualization expert, public speaker, and author of “Dashboards for Excel” and “Advanced Excel Essentials”.
“Usually I have a large, medium, and small presentation,” Goldmeier said. “Small is the two-slide one, medium is four or five, and large is as many as you want. I build the large one first and then just cut things down to size for different audiences.”
3. How will this help move the business forward?
Keeping the data simple and understandable is the key to a successful presentation for your audience, but good storytelling requires advanced planning (well before the presentation date).
In order to stay on track, good storytellers should think about one or two points they want the audience to take away from the presentation ahead of time. Wattig says the goal of financial storytelling is all about helping the company create a plan of action, and no more than one or two of them.
“The goal of a presentation is a discussion on how to take action and drive the business forward,” Wattig, an FP&A architect and founder of FP&A Bootcamp said. “If everyone is nodding politely, you’ve failed. You want people to take action from your work.”
Advance planning doesn’t just help direct the company into a plan of action, it also helps keep the discussion on point. This avoids each person coming away with completely different interpretations of the data.
Goldmeier gave an example of a time when he put together a detailed presentation but didn’t have a plan of action in mind to back it up.
“What I didn’t have was a narrative, I didn’t put guardrails on it,” he said. “So everyone interpreted it in their own way, and at that point you’re reading it like tea leaves – everyone can see their own fortune in it. While I had the technical aspects of it, I didn’t have a story they could fall back on that would frame their valuation of it.”
4. Know the Audience
All of the hard work – from collecting and analyzing the data, to planning and creating the presentations – could all be for naught if financial storytellers don’t understand their audience.
A presentation for stakeholders should look very different from a presentation for management. In addition, a one-on-one presentation shouldn’t be the same as one that is catered to dozens of people.
As a math major with more than 20 years of experience as a finance professional, Annette DeYoung knows both the difficulty and importance of being able to explain finance subjects to non-finance people.
“It’s easy to get lost in the details, because you know the story and the details behind the numbers, but your audience doesn’t necessarily understand,” DeYoung, an FP&A Solution Consultant said. “Know your audience! If nobody asks questions, they don’t understand it.”
She explained that this is especially true when presenting in front of a large room of people where nobody wants to be the one who raises their hand and admits that they didn’t understand it. This is where learning from experience and understanding body language comes into play.
5. Read body language
The webinar panelists gave a few tips to make sure that the audience will understand the presentation and be engaged. One of the most important tips is how to prepare for the specific audience by interacting with them before the presentation.
“Train for anything new that you’re going to present to a group,” DeYoung suggested. “Send it out early and pick a couple of people and ask them, ‘Does this make sense to you? What doesn’t make sense to you?’ This way you can make sure that you’re going to be reporting in a way that makes sense and that people will be engaged.”
Wattig put more of an emphasis on body language. In a previous role when someone gave a complicated and unclear presentation in front of a large group of people, he noticed how people “frowned”, “had blank stares” and “tried to understand what the data was telling them.”
Instead, presentations should be clear, concise, and custom made for the audience, who will then reciprocate this with positive body language and good questions.
6. Apply Creativity
The role of finance and FP&A has changed tremendously thanks to the improvements in technology. As a result, finance professionals are expected to use technology to take on much of the “grunt work” and deliver a broader and more creative role in the company.
In order to encourage creativity, Wattig advises finance teams to generate multiple options and multiple alternatives in each stage of the process. “Always think about if there’s different ways I can look at this,” he said. “Don’t just think about it, try it! Pull the data in different ways, drill down differently, and see what different results it gives you.”
Goldmeier is also a big proponent of trying new things and making changes to presentations based on who the audience is. And as any good leader will tell you, putting your ego aside and being willing to take criticism and learn from it will only make you better in the long run.
“There’s no such thing as perfect data visualization,” Goldmeier said with a smile. “Everything’s a tradeoff, so make multiple versions, get feedback, and take the feedback well.”
For finance teams, collaboration is an important part of creativity as well. With the newer outlook of leaders who want all departments in their organization to work together, finance has the unique opportunity to tie all of the data in the company together. They are among the few people outside of management who know the bigger picture.
“It’s important that finance teams don’t feel limited to data that has a dollar sign attached to it,” Wattig said. “I’m a big proponent of data democracy – that data should be shared across all teams. Finance and FP&A teams are especially well equipped to make use of that non-financial data by connecting all of the dots in the organization.”