Don’t count on it

I recently saw a job posting for a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) which listed, among the requirements:

  1. A solid working knowledge of budgeting and auditing processes, institutional financial planning and strategic planning;
  2. Excellent interpersonal, communications, public speaking and presentation skills.

This made me realize that the stereotype of a CPA as a bespectacled number cruncher is wildly inaccurate.

At the upper levels of the financial profession the ability to present with confidence and connect with an audience is crucial. But do all accountants know what it takes to become effective presenters? Don’t count on it.

My recent blog posting on Presenting Complex Information contains simple rules of direct relevance for financial experts.

Here’s some more specific suggestions.

Avoid burying the audience in raw data

Financial experts can overwhelm an audience with too much data. A poor presentation often contains too much information. Less is more.
Accountants should only present the most important numbers to an audience during the speech. Save detailed financial statements for handouts and reference material. Reassure people that these are available should they need details. Most audiences are more interested in seeing if a few key numbers and financial measures make sense, before they waste time digging through your supporting data.

A picture is worth a thousand words

One of the most powerful ways to present numerical data is with graphs and charts. You can translate an enormous collection of numbers instantly into concise, easily understood images. Graphs are an effective way to present trends and comparisons. Keep them simple and uncluttered. Be sure headings, labels, axis tabs, and so on are clear and legible. Here’s one extraordinarily compelling way to present large numbers (hint: useful if you are working on the disbursement of Federal Stimulus funds!)

Give each statistic a context that makes it relevant to the audience

Numbers alone are often meaningless and difficult to grasp by themselves. It’s much easier for non-financially literate listeners to grasp a number if you talk about it in everyday terms that they can relate to.

Speaking coach Joan Detz has valuable suggestions in her book It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

  • Simplify your numbers. Don’t say, “Our state is growing so fast that we need to add 2.91 new classrooms every day. Round up the number to say “three classrooms.”
  • Put your numbers in perspective. When Barbara Bush spoke about illiteracy, she urged audiences to “turn off the TV. The average kindergarten student has watched more than five thousand hours of television. That’s more time than it takes to earn a college degree.”
  • Create a picture with numbers … “The wasted food would fill X number of refrigerators.”
  • Put your numbers in human terms … “This highway would shorten your commute by fifteen minutes.”

By following these guidelines, financial experts can become storytellers who get the message across to audiences in an a way that is interesting and creative.

Practice makes perfect

But remember, just as you didn’t learn the intricacies of Sarbanes-Oxley overnight, you won’t become a top presenter without practicing. Take advantage of courses offered as part of your continuing professional education (CPE) requirements. Seize every opportunity to practice in front of your peers at local association meetings. Volunteer to speak on accounting as a career option to local schools and colleges. Join Toastmasters.

One day, when you apply for that CFO job, your practice will pay off, big time.

2 Comments so far
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Here’s a joke I heard recently:

How do you spot an extroverted accountant? He stares at your shoes, not his own.

Ian,

Like you, I find that many subject matter experts, not just accountants and CPAs, bury their audiences in data. It’s as if they think their data will make their case for them. They don’t seem to realize that overwhelming people with TMI shuts them down and makes them less — not more — willing to cooperate.

I ask them to priotize. From all that you know, what are the most important elements for you audience to know at this time? What do they mean? How do they affect — positively or negatively — your audience? What can your audience do with them?

I ask presenters to keep their supporting evidence available in case people ask for it during the Q&A. Also, they can always give it out as a handout, if they feel compelled to share it.

Best, Chris



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