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The Important Skills They Don’t Teach in Finance Courses

January 12, 2017 By Paul Lower

Have you ever looked around at your audience whilst you were making a financial presentation to be met by a sea of confused, or bored, faces?  If you have, it’s hardly surprising because few, if any, university or professional finance and accounting courses focus on the important skills that are required to interpret and communicate financial concepts and insights to non-financial audiences.

Can you make it out of the back room in to the boardroom?

You may have highly developed finance knowledge and accounting skills; you might well be the master of the Excel spreadsheet – but in today’s highly competitive work place those talents will not by themselves be enough to get you out of the accounting back office and in to the C-suite with the real decision makers. The most successful CFO’s and Finance Directors achieve their place at the boardroom table by avoiding the most common presentation pitfalls and mastering the skills to interpret and communicate financial information in a way that provides key insights in to business performance for the organisation’s strategic decision makers.

Common mistakes made in financial presentations

The finance professional faces a similar challenge to that of other experts when communicating with an audience without the same level of knowledge and it is easy to fall in to some common traps when making presentation:

  • Using jargon. Non-financial audiences cannot be expected to understand unfamiliar technical financial terms and may be afraid to ask for clarification for fear of appearing foolish.
  • Too many numbers. Accountants love numbers, but people that are not used to working with numbers find vast arrays of numbers overwhelming and are unable to draw any meaning from them.
  • Presenting Excel worksheets. Excel workbooks do not make good presentation materials, inevitably presenting a great deal of data, but little real information that can be processed by managers without the knowledge or experience of interpreting spreadsheets.
  • Presenting full financial statements. Financial statements are not designed to highlight any specific aspect of financial performance, financial strength or important changes that may have taken place; it is the job of the presenter to edit, interpret and highlight relevant information from financial statements to support their arguments and provide meaningful business insights.
  • Mistaking data for information. Data is not the same thing as information; information helps the reader understand an argument that is being presented or provide them with an insight in to how well strategies to achieve high-level organisational goals are being implemented and executed.  A random presentation of numbers and charts does not in itself represent information unless it provides these kinds of insights to the reader.
  • Lack of a clear message. Many presentations prompt the question, “so what?” Even when presenting relevant financial information it is still necessary to explain what it means and why it’s important, suggesting what conclusions may be drawn from the information.

6 Steps to designing a winning financial presentation

  • Focus on your audience
  • Focus on your own message and objectives
  • Plan and prepare meticulously
  • Write your “elevator pitch”
  • Build the presentation around the pitch
  • End your presentation with a call to action

Focus on your audience

When a presenter really works to get to know the audience it makes it easier to communicate in a way that seems less formal and this will help the presentation to feel more like a conversation from the perspective of both the presenter and the audience. Think about your audience, what are they like? In which part of the organisation do they work; are they technical, administrative or creative workers? Answering these questions will give you an insight in to how the see the world and will allow you to empathise with them, ask yourself these other questions before you start designing your presentation:

  • Why is your audience attending the presentation? What are they hoping to get from listening to your presentation? 
  • What problems are they hoping you will help them to solve? What are the problems that your audience has; what really keeps them awake at night? 
  • How can you solve their problems and improve their lives?  Knowing this will allow you to highlight these benefits during your presentation; if managers are judged on financial performance they will be grateful for any insights in to the action that they might be able to take to improve their results.
  • How might they resist the message in the key points of your presentation? 
  • What is the most effective form of communication to use? Do they prefer written text, spoken explanation, charts and diagrams, or numbers?

Focus on your own objectives

What are your objectives for the presentation? Is there a single big idea that is the focus of your presentation; a particular problem to which you want to draw to the attention of the audience, or is it a specific message you wish to get across?

Plan and prepare thoroughly

After considering your audience and defined your own objectives it is time to plan and thoroughly prepare your presentation. To design a presentation with impact:

  • First set context; explain your central message, the “big picture”, to which the details of the presentation will relate.
  • Frame the presentation from the point of view of the audience; try to think from their point of view and get “in their heads”.
  • Identify the relevant subject and detail for the presentation and be thorough in presenting all of the relevant facts; give detail in areas where it matters.
  • Carefully think about the language you will use in the presentation; avoid financial jargon and speak to your audience on a human and emotional level, rather than a purely intellectual level. You can do this by relating specific points to your own personal experience. Speak to the audience about what you perceive as their problems and explain how you can provide a solution.
  • Carefully think about how you will present the financial data using the appropriate combination of numbers, text and graphics.
  • Anticipate questions; put yourself in the shoes of one of the audience: what questions might be prompted by your financial presentation? Are there any technical financial aspects that will need explanation?
  • Anticipate the kind of criticisms and resistance might your proposals attract? Think about how will you respond to the criticism.

Write your “elevator pitch”

Imagine that when you arrive at the CEO’s office your are told that he has to leave on urgent business at another company location and that you have 30 seconds to explain the key points of your presentation as you ride with him in the elevator to the ground floor of the building. This is your “elevator pitch” and the only chance you have to present your case; what would be your message and key points? To identify the key points write down all of the points that you want to get across. Prioritise them and select the most important three or four points, those that are most likely to support your message and help you to achieve your objectives.

Build your presentation around the pitch

Now you can plan and build your presentation around these key points. Incorporate them in to the presentation using each type of bias; this will maximise your chances of getting your message across.

End your presentation with a “call to action”

This is possibly the most important aspect of a presentation and it is often left out. A call to action goes at the very end of your presentation and is a clear direction to the audience of what you want them to do after the presentation has ended.

Effective Presentation Skills for Finance Professionals

This five-day training course is designed, written and presented by a seasoned finance professional with more than 20 years board-level experience in global media companies. He has made financial presentations to a wide-range of audiences including board-level colleagues, bank credit managers and venture capital investors. The course is organised as a practical hands-on workshop and provides a unique opportunity and safe environment for delegates to learn and practice the skills needed to plan, prepare and deliver winning financial presentations.

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