How to efficiently present your financial reports and make your insights ‘stick’.
How much of what you say in your presentations, or meetings actually stays with your audience?
They might leave with a fact or two, but you could be wasting time and resources if you are not sharing information in a way that transforms your financial reports into something really ‘sticky in the brain’ – something that helps people remember what you have said and how to act on it.
This means you need to tell your story in way that will make them think:
“Wow, that’s really going to stick with me. I now know exactly what to do next, where to go, and why these figures matter.”
This is where we create some sticky storytelling.
Storytelling is an art AND a science
Some may consider stories to be ‘woo woo’, however stories are a narrative that is broken down into various elements within a structure.
It’s an appealing, listener-friendly framework that you can use instead of just throwing information and data at an audience, leaving everyone looking confused and feeling unsure about what they should do with it.
You create added value by helping them to understand what it all means and what’s going to happen next, as well as making the numbers really effective. After all, isn’t that the whole point of having these reports in the first place? To give us valuable insights so we know what steps to take to move forward, and also to see where things are going wrong?
Businesses go on all sorts of journeys in order to grow, and have to deal with many issues and obstacles on the way, just like in a good story. And humans have been telling stories since we evolved from microbes, so we are pretty expert at it!
We all use stories to share information, to engage with our peers.
Stories are powerful and difficult to ignore. Because we feel. Because we see the story.
The framework is so effective is because it’s not just one part of our brain that’s being used when we hear actual stories.
The teller sets scenes, creates characters and engages emotions that activate not only the audience’s emotional responses, but also sights, sounds and memories in the brain.
All these parts of the brain suddenly light up and the story sticks to them – much more so than on hearing a plain statistic, fact or metric – especially if you’re talking to a non-financial audience.
I am now going to break this down into three powerful stages detailing actions that you can do now to implement storytelling techniques into your presentations.
1) What is The Story You Are Trying to Tell?
The first thing you need to do is decide what you want to convey to your audience. Think about it. You have a report full of data, and it has some beautiful numbers, and maybe even beautiful charts and graphs, but the first question you need to ask is:
“What am I trying to say with these numbers, what is the story here?”
The seven plots
There are only seven kinds of stories in the world.
That simplifies things. Here’s an ABC of three of the most recognisable ones:
A) Battling The Monster
One story you are sure to know very well is a hero’s journey to overcome a monster. That’s a really good one. It can be an internal monster or an external monster, as in a lot of the Greek myths. You fight it and win and the world is saved!
One example is the film Independence Day. Alien invaders have arrived to annihilate the Earth, and the hero’s Will Smith and Bill Pullman fight back to overcome them with a computer virus.
There are a lot of corporate stories out there where the heroes overcome monsters. Chief among them at the moment is the scientific rush to find a vaccine for Covid-19.
A battle can also be waged within numbers, so are you trying to overcome a financial monster?
If so, what is your plan for winning the battle?
B) Embarking On A Vital Quest
Have you been on a quest where you’ve returned, changed and with important information to share?
Think about The Lord of the Rings, where hobbit Frodo Baggins and the Fellowship go on an adventure and come back much the wiser for it.
In other examples, Alice in Wonderland fall down the rabbit hole of full of strange creatures and events, then returns to her normal land where all is right with the world again. The same with Dorothy’s dream in The Wizard of Oz.
What quest have you, or the business been on, where the return has provided more insights.
C) Going From Rags To Riches
The rags-to-riches type of tale is really brilliant in business storytelling.
Imagine a person starting with nothing and going on to create fantastic wealth and wonder just through the power of themselves.
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, JK Rowling, and Walt Disney, to name but a few!
Check out some of the rags-to-riches lists at: businessinsider.com
You will find a lot of SAAS companies have also achieved this leap.
The story of AirBnb
Airbnb is a classic, started by two guys in San Francisco with a basic website. In trying to turn it around they went to homes, sold mattress space, and suddenly this miraculous beast of a business appeared, all from their innovation and hard work. They literally went from rags to riches.
And Airbnb’s pitch deck and finances would have shown their journey and their tenacity as they went on. They took a set of numbers – their statistics, metrics, growth patterns, everything – and they transformed them into something that people really wanted to throw their money at because they wanted to be a part of it, and they wanted to see what happened next. That is the power of really effective storytelling with accounts.
Going back to the basics, the first question you need to ask is: “What story am I telling with these numbers?” – even if it’s a quarterly financial report, or you are just delivering basic PNLs.
You have information, and it is trying to do something. So ask yourself “What does this do? What’s the point of it? Why does it exist?
Whether it be reviewing costs, or reflecting on the past to improve, it could be like overcoming a monster. It could even become a Jekyll and Hyde story – which is the good and which is the bad? And how does the good overcome the bad to create a wonderful, beautiful future?
Next, ask yourself: “What do the audience need to learn from this piece of information?”
Who are you talking to?
And I say ‘audience’ in place of ‘stakeholder’ because I really do want you to think in terms of an audience rather than just stakeholder relationships.
These are people who are focused on listening to what you have to say; people who need to be engaged; people who will then leave the room happy in the knowledge that they have learned something.
When we connect with stories, it’s valuable to see what connects you, personally, to a story as well.
So think about the kind of tales you love. What’s your favourite genre? What’s your favourite movie? What’s your favourite book? You can even think of a favourite song or piece of music, because music also tells a story, a really emotive one. And why do we laugh or sob? Why do we watch horror movies? Why do we love being scared? Why do we watch a certain movie over and over again?
Have a look at those feelings, because that is what’s going to help in your search for what you want the audience to feel like, and it will also help you to identify the result that you’re looking to get.
I’d love to hear what you have to say about your favourites, so please do add your thoughts to the comments below.
2) The Mentor Mindset
The second stage is something that I really love teaching in my presentation skills sessions. I call it the ‘Mentor Mindset’. Cue the imagination again…
If you are walking into a meeting room, think of it as a set with a stage, and imagine that someone has scripted everything that is going to happen – that they have crafted the entire meeting from beginning to end.
Every character who all has a role to play, there for the sole purpose of making the story work and giving it the momentum to move forward.
These days the meeting room will likely be on Zoom, with squares of participants popped up on a screen providing just as good an opportunity to share information, inspire action, and connect with others.
Stories are created to move people forward in time
In a well written play, movie or TV or radio script, the writer would have a lead character – a hero – who would be trying to overcome a massive challenge. He or she would have a huge mountain to climb.
Then there would also be a villain, an antagonist, in the room. It might not necessarily be a person, but it is definitely a big problem.
Who or what is the problem? What are you there to overcome?
Then, traditionally, there are other characters in supporting roles, and they can have various functions. One of them can often be a sidekick-type character, there to explain really obvious things to the audience, and we probably always have that person in a meeting.
They give a backstory, information, say things that the lead character doesn’t, so they support the overall information. But again, this might not be a person, it could be a report on the table giving background information on why you are there, or an agenda.
The role you must play
But the role that we’re really interested in, the one I think you need to take the most notice of, is the mentor.
See if this sounds familiar – the mentor is the person who guides the lead character to fulfil their mission. Doesn’t that sound exactly like an accountant, a CFO, an FD or a financial adviser? Absolutely!
In these roles, you provide the data, analytics, tools and experience for a business to succeed, to climb its mountain – every time. But you don’t do the work yourself, you are not the hero, you are the mentor guiding the hero to success.
You will often see characters in stories that are old and wise like Merlin. For instance, going back to The Lord of the Rings, the wizard Gandalf provided all the wisdom, inspiration, support and nurturing.
As a lead character, Bond is a classic in that he’s riddled with flaws. It’s marvellous, and we watch out for them in every film. But the really great thing about Bond is that he has Q as his secret weapon.
Q (The Quartermaster), gives him directions, hacks into things, gives him the tools, the gadgets, the gizmos, the cars, and all of the things Bond might need in a crisis. Suddenly he’s got a magic watch, a deadly pen or a widget in the car, something that can be used just at the right time so he can save the day – and that’s exactly what accountants do!
The accountant’s job is to fly in and save the day when a business needs it, with all the tools and insights that they have. So this second takeaway is a really big one – if you are going to share information, you have got to get your head into the mentor mindset.
You are not there to complete your own mission, you are there to save the hero in their business challenge. You can empower them to solve the problem. So spin yourself into that Merlin-Gandalf-Yoda-Q mentor space to feel the power of sharing your vital information and wise words.
3) Using numbers to tell the story
Finally, the most important thing is being able to turn a set of numbers into a wild, interesting and retellable story – one that will stick in people’s minds and will travel.
You need to identify the characters in your data tale.
Let’s make it really simple.
Every story will always have a hero and a villain and a series of supporting characters on both sides. So have a look at the tale you’re trying to tell and think about which number is the hero leading the charge, and which number is the baddie dragging everything down.
A story also has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and we need something to happen to kick it all off, and that is usually a conflict caused by the villainous number.
It could be that you have identified a number in your report that is causing a massive problem in your overall product spend, or something in the margin, or a deficit somewhere. Or it could be in the cash flow – and cash flow is a real journey, so it’s perfect.
Identify the bump in the road, the little Shakespearean Iago that’s causing issues and muttering things about problems to the main numbers. For instance, this villainous number could be manufacturing costs dragging the poor old profit margin down.
Once you have identified the leading numbers to set the story and journey in motion, the next thing is to identify the route to beating the villain and resolving the problem. You may not have the answer to everything, but you can certainly steer the room towards a resolution and the story towards a solution.
You only need them to think about one thing
Focus on what you are trying to achieve, why you are showing people these numbers in the first place. What makes them so important that you are reporting them? That is the overall skill of storytelling.
Remember, you will always need three very simple things – a beginning, a middle, and an end. The magic ingredients go into that afterwards.
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