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CFOs: Transform numbers into compelling narratives

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Accountants need to be able to not just produce accurate numbers, but tell a story from those numbers too. Zoe Kleinman, BBC’s technology editor, shares with Neil Cutting tips to help CFOs and finance directors transform their communication skills.

29th May 2024
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Finance directors (FDs) and chief financial officers (CFOs) play a crucial role in communicating complex financial information to a variety of stakeholders. However, distilling data and analyses into clear, compelling stories is a challenge that many struggle with. The challenge only becomes more difficult when PowerPoint slides and emails are thrown in, too. 

Zoe Kleinman (left), the BBC’s technology editor, knows this challenge all too well.

Zoe KleinmanAs a leading technology journalist and presenter with over a decade of broadcasting experience, Kleinman is tasked daily with taking complex topics from cyber security to artificial intelligence and articulating these stories in an engaging and educational way to a global audience of millions across BBC News, BBC World Service and Radio 4’s Today

Catalyst for change

She sympathises with the plight of CFOs and FDs when it comes to communication: simple storytelling is harder than it seems. “If you are an expert in your field, and you spend your whole life researching, developing, talking and understanding your subjects, then of course, any other form of storytelling is going to feel inadequate to you. But what you have to remember is that most people are not you.”

This is a common problem executives face when attempting to explain financial topics to those without specialised expertise.

As a mainstream news reporter, Kleinman explained that her job is to tell stories in a way that most people can understand and would rather the majority of people came away with one salient point, rather than throwing endless information at them and they come away with nothing. 

There is no better example for CFOs and FDs than their tendency to commit death by PowerPoint. Discouraging accountants from compiling a novel-sized slide deck and merely reading the text, she said: “Nobody is going to remember any of these. They’re just going to remember how bored they were. And actually, this was the point at which they realised they quite fancied a coffee – and you’ve lost them.”

Assess the gaps

The PowerPoint example illustrates the gap finance leaders need to bridge to become better communicators. “You’re complementing what people can see,” advised Kleinman. “If they’re sitting in front of you, they don’t need you to tell them what they can see with their own eyes.” 

But the problem is deeper than that. What holds some people back from being good communicators is they don’t know what makes a good story.

Kleinman often finds it strange when people ask her what makes a good story. “Everyone knows,” she said. “It’s what you come home and chat about with your significant other or kids.”

However, she said some people have a tendency to think they have to make their story serious. “Good storytelling doesn’t have to be serious,” she said. “I think you can still have a serious point, but it can have colour to it.”

Kleinman added that people want to hear the message from someone who “speaks to them in a language they understand”. 

Meet the desired state

So what steps do finance leaders need to take to go from PowerPoint bores to charismatic communicators? Kleinman advised CFOs and FDs to not hide behind “meaningless” jargon or acronyms. 

“Everything you do that puts up a barrier to people being able to understand is an extra bit of friction that will stop them trying,” she said

As accountants, it can be difficult to avoid using acronyms but as Kleinman posited: “Why make it harder for them?

“If they open an email, and they see a bunch of meaningless platitudes, and then some actions they don’t really get, they are not going to bother reading. You don’t have people’s attention for very long.”

This is true in other forms of communication. On average most people only watch two seconds of a YouTube video. “You’ve only got a short period of time to get someone’s attention, so don’t waste it hiding behind phrases that don’t mean anything.”

So she advised finance leaders to “start with your best bit” – the most compelling part of the message – in order to hook the audience. For journalists, this is the headline. “What is the one thing you want me to know? If you’ve hooked me, then I’ll read (or listen to) the rest of it.”

While senior leaders can bring more colour to their presentations, the fact remains that they’re in a leadership position and they’re not their subordinates’ mate down the pub. But that doesn’t stop them from being honest and clear. “I think that asserting authority has to present itself in different ways. Hiding behind language is only going to alienate you from your team.”

The first 90 days and beyond

For those looking to see a more immediate impact in honing their communication skills, Kleinman drew on her media experience to offer additional tips.

The first action a CFO or FD should take in the next 90 days is to start editing. Kleinman said everybody is improved by an edit. “I have yet to meet a single person whose prose, the first time out, is so good that it doesn’t need anything done to it.”

Email headlines are a good place to start if you want to practise using concise language and tight editing. Headlines at the BBC are restricted to 55 characters. While there is always the temptation to write more, Kleinman contended that the punchy 55-characters headline is the right length to summarise your story.   

The same method can be applied to boardroom presentations. The BBC technology editor said everybody overwrites a speech. Sharing the secrets from behind the scenes of the BBC newsroom, Kleinman revealed that the average TV package is two minutes which gives the presenter around 120 words. She explained that reporters have very few words to play with in these reports because it’s not non-stop talking, there are sounds, silences and visuals to tell the story. “I’ve seen people write speeches that are 5,000 words long, but my first thought is, ‘That’s going to take you four hours.’”

Instead, she advised senior finance leaders to think more concisely and restrict their speeches to two words a second – this is slower than you would usually speak. “You’ve got to think about your audience. You might be very pleased with your five-minute speech but no one else will be.”

For Kleinman, this is the key to communication. When she started in TV she was always reminded to have in her mind that an audience member is on your shoulder. So every now and then, she’d remember to turn to this imaginary audience member and ask, “Did you get that?” 

“Don’t just assume that people know what’s in your head, because they don’t. So edit yourself, read it back for yourself. Less is more.” 

If you’re looking to be more direct and communicate succinctly, Kleinman suggested cutting any tone that makes you sound as if you’re sorry. Women more than men often apologise unnecessarily in professional emails, starting with phrases like “I’m sorry to bother you.” Instead, they should communicate confidently and directly without apologising for taking up time.

Continuous improvement

After mastering the basics, how can CFOs and FDs continue to hone their skills and develop further to reach a high-performing stage in communication?

Kleinman said that if finance leaders are really serious about continuously improving their communication skills the first torturous step they should take is to watch themselves and self-critique.  

The seasoned broadcaster said: “It is toe-curlingly awful and you’ll hate it. And you’ll start thinking, ‘Oh, my nose is big’. And then you’ll go through your misery like, ‘Oh, my voice is awful. How do I do it like that? And what am I doing with my hand’, and you’ll completely rip yourself apart and feel dreadful. But you’ll learn.

“If there’s something you do that you don’t like, you won’t be aware of it until you start listening to yourself and watching yourself.”

So the next time you feel like you’re talking too fast when under pressure, Kleinman said you’ll slow down because you’ll remember seeing yourself talking and remember how hard it was to follow what you were saying. 

She also stressed the importance of appearance, saying how a wardrobe refresh significantly boosted her confidence at work through subtle outfit changes alone.

Kleinman considered clothing as a form of “armour”. “In a job like mine, I want you to listen to what I’m telling you, I don’t want you to be distracted by my hair or my top. I know if somebody’s standing in the wind and their hair is blowing out, I don’t hear what they’ve said because I’ve been focused on that. It’s just human nature.”

So if you are in the world of presenting, then you need to really think about your appearance. “You need to think about your self-image and decide how you want to present yourself and don’t make life hard for yourself by wearing something that could go wrong.”

By continuously refining techniques based on expert guidance, finance leaders can enhance their ability to communicate complex information in an engaging, accessible manner.

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By ArianBloodwood
04th Jun 2024 14:25

This is really helpful - thankyou Zoe for your experience, and to Neil for bringing her pearls to this forum.
I'm about to start making little videos of things I find myself repeatedly saying to clients. Zoe's wisdom is gold!

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