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Get better, faster decisions from the board

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Soufyan Hamid explains to Neil Cutting how finance teams can get better and faster decisions through storytelling.

16th Aug 2023
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Despite training financial planning and analysis (FP&A) teams in presenting, this skill didn’t always come naturally to Soufyan Hamid (pictured below). In fact, his former director once told him that he “sucked at presenting” after he had just delivered the monthly results.

That moment lit a fire in Hamid. He took the criticism personally and decided right there to train and become a better storyteller. 

A photo of Soufyan HamidStarting his career as a consultant for PwC and then Deloitte before moving to Belgian telecommunications company Proximus, Hamid finally found his calling in FP&A. But he started to become disillusioned. He was working as a finance business partner but any opportunities to progress in the role were not forthcoming. 

He didn’t know what he was doing wrong. That was until that fateful day when the VP of finance dished up some harsh truth. The nub of the matter was he didn’t know who he was serving in his presentations. 

“When you prepare a presentation, it’s not for you – it’s for them. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the board and understand what data matters to them and will make them move.”

He added, “Many people say storytelling is just a buzzword. However, people still make decisions with their guts and feelings, and as a finance professional, you have the power to bring the data and the financial data into the decision process. 

“You cannot influence people with simple bullet points – you will need a story. This is why storytelling is important for the company.”

The need for storytelling

In the subsequent years, storytelling in finance has grown in importance. As a content creator on LinkedIn, Hamid is regularly contacted by CFOs, finance directors and FP&A managers needing help with how their team presents figures. 

“Most people in finance are analytical. We are trained to give a lot of details. We want everything to match – for example, the debit has to match credit,” said Hamid.  

“But when you get to CFO, you and your colleagues on the board have less time [to make a decision]. That’s why they want their finance team to deliver a clear message that will go to an action.” 

This rings true for me in my previous roles as a CFO. I’m someone who likes to understand a small number of big issues rather than lots and lots of data. It’s always been something I’ve struggled with when communicating with some of my more data-driven colleagues.  

Hamid pointed to a typical slide deck as an example of how stories are lost in too much data. They either have too many graphs or have figures and tables that you can only read under a microscope if you print out the slide deck.   

I mean, who hasn’t been in a meeting where someone broadcasts a disjointed barrage of data to the rest of the room, while everyone else either quietly nods or is distracted by their rumbling stomach?

The vision of the future

Instead, Hamid advocates for finance teams to evolve from a finance presentation where no questions are asked to one where the presenter becomes a facilitator because there are lots of questions and the attendees are discussing the content. 

He said that this is achieved through crafting the presentation around a central message. “They have to go into detail [during a presentation], but what they have to learn is what they have to bring as a message from this analysis. They do not have to tell everything, they have to know what the message will be,” said Hamid. 

To do this, they have to structure the presentation as a story. “The structure is really important because you go beyond simply informing people to convincing them to take action about what you said,” he said. 

The next step in enabling faster decision-making is simply to provide better visuals. Hamid said that currently “visuals are not great in finance”. To combat this, he advises budding storytellers to use a simple slide with their presentation. 

The secret sauce that pulls all these steps together is to make sure you’re ready to give a good presentation and to focus on your body language. 

Meeting the desired state

In order to embed this culture of faster decision-making, finance leaders should first cascade a storytelling mindset to their teams.  

“As a CFO, you know how it works in boardrooms. If you continue asking for too much detail from your teams, they will provide the details because they do not know the finality of your presentation,” said Hamid.   

By empowering the finance team to become storytellers, CFOs are saving themselves the job of translating the details into a story.  

CFOs can drive this behaviour by pausing and thinking more about the questions they ask of their team – whether this is when preparing the slides and preparing for big presentations or during decision-making workshops.  

Hamid said this storytelling principle can be adopted beyond presentations and workshops and used to increase the influence of finance across the organisation. 

An example of this was the monthly “Doughnut Friday” presentations I gave as the global division CFO at Hewlett Packard. I had five minutes to present the finances in the canteen to over 1,000 factory workers while they tucked into their glazed-ringed cake. The aim of the presentation was to tell a quick story in five minutes, without the use of slides, and grab the attention of the doughnut-distracted worker. 

By spreading the storytelling mindset across the organisation, it means that not only is the board benefitting, but the finance team have seats at the table of other departments and management committees and support them during their decision-making process. 

After taking on board the advice from that thorny heart-to-heart, Hamid got his promotion. He realised that training is an important component of storytelling and helping finance professionals progress in their careers. 

“People want to trust people who are visible and are showing confidence in the way they present,” he said. “Through storytelling, they will become visible and be seen as leaders, increase their credibility and have more opportunities to progress.” 

Continuous improvement

If you want to make sure to keep improving it, you have to make sure that people are practising it. 

“When I was working at Proximus, for example, we did not have direct access to the CFO, but we did have our VP finance for each department. And so each month we had to present them the financials, which gave us the opportunity to train our presentation skills,” said Hamid.  

As a self-confessed key performance indicator (KPI) geek, it also struck me that the success of storytelling lends itself to being measured using a balanced scorecard and analysing the process in terms of input, process and output. 

  • Input: How many analysts are being trained in storytelling? How many are helping different departments make faster decisions?  
  • Process: Here you could keep track of the production of slides and tally up the actual presentations.
  • Output: How wide an audience are you reaching through storytelling? You could start with the board and workshops and then consider widening the net of your target audience – like the example of Hewlett Packard – and the more people in the company you help make better decisions, the more influential finance becomes. Then, you can measure the effectiveness of the presentations and ask for feedback to improve the cycle.

You could then attach a red, amber and green traffic light scorecard to each of those metrics. If storytelling is really important, why are you doing it? Not to tell nice stories but to get better decisions. That’s why we should measure the effectiveness of it in a scorecard. 

Evaluate and improve

It’s never easy to receive criticism as stinging and honest as what Hamid received from his former director. But for the storytelling maestro, that conversation was a sliding-doors moment in his career and for that, he’s thankful. 

Connecting the dots since he received that criticism, Hamid has realised that storytelling is nothing without a rock-solid foundation. 

“When you build your finance career, the first years will be about the technical skills, then when you have this credibility, you have to sell it. 

“And this is the moment where you have to switch from focusing on technical skills, to communications skills to business partnering skills. But unless you have those technical skills, there’s no point in trying to learn the other skills.  

“Storytelling without strong foundations is clearly a buzzword. You have to be strong in what you do, and know how to communicate about it,” said Hamid.

Top three takeaways

  • Finance is not a back-office department: The only way to make finance an actionable department is through communication.
  • Educate the company: It has to be cascaded to the whole company, not only in the board. The way to make finance more accessible for the whole company is to use storytelling techniques. 
  • Trust your teams: Some companies only reserve the role of presenting financials to the CFO or the finance director. Finance departments should trust their team and give them this opportunity, because it gives them a boost of self-confidence.

For further reading, Neil has written an article on why transformation projects fail

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By tom123
17th Aug 2023 09:28

Interesting points, but I can't help feeling none of your 1000 doughnut eating workers would have cared at all about the finances - unless it was clearly going to lead to pay increases, or redundancies.

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