Presentation skills for finance directors
Mark Lee met up with Nick Fitzherbert, a member of The Magic Circle, to talk about the success he has been having in coaching finance directors in presentation skills – by applying a little magic!
ML: So what has magic got to do with presentation skills and why in particular have you been using it for finance directors?
NF: I caught the magic ‘bug’ midway through a 20-year career in public relations – I hired a magician called Fay Presto to entertain my staff one Christmas and I was instantly hooked. I started searching out the shops, the clubs and the conventions, and the more I learned about magic, the more I realised that many of the principles that lay behind the tricks – for directing attention, persuading and convincing – were very useful in real life. I was able to put this into practice when I moved into the training world, where I now coach top executives at some of the biggest companies in both the UK and abroad.
ML: But what do you do for finance directors?
NF: Well, when I started presentation skills coaching I believed I could demonstrate the thinking behind my use of magic principles most effectively if I got the people I was coaching to perform a magic trick as well as deliver their business presentation. To be honest, it was a bit of a gimmick initially, but it has proved to be invaluable for people who work in the finance sector.
ML: Why especially finance people Nick?
NF: Well, I don’t want to be indelicate here, but financial people do tend to be, shall we say, less ‘natural presenters’ than, say, the marketing and sales types with whom I also work. It’s not surprising – they are dealing with people’s money and that needs the reassurance of a lot of numbers. Shall we say that they invariably switch into ‘presentation mode’ the moment they get up in front of an audience, becoming a bit robotic and not very engaging?
ML: I think we all know what you mean; my own mantra is ‘boring is optional’.
NF: Precisely. What I found was that the moment they start their trick – bear in mind that I have seen them do a business presentation earlier – their body language loosens up; a smile comes on their face and it can be heard in their voice; they are telling us stories – often about themselves, so we warm to them; and as a result they are becoming more convincing. They also realise that the success of the trick depends on culminating in a big ‘ta-dah’ moment that they want their audience to remember and to go away and talk about. And their business presentation could do with one of those too!
This all fits well with the topic of ‘focus’ that invariably we will have discussed earlier in the session. One person – the FD of a FTSE 100 company delivered his financial results presentation in a way that was reasonably efficient, but unremarkable. I surprised him by saying: “That was fine, but what do you want me to go away and think and do as a result of your presentation”? “That’s a good question”, he said, but never really came up with an answer. The scary thing was that he had already delivered this presentation some 35 times to analysts around the City.
ML: How common do you think that is?
NF: I’m afraid it seems to be very common. I asked the same question of another senior FD a few days later. He thought for a moment and replied: “I want them to think ‘good set of results – we’re back on the growth curve’”. “That’s not bad”, I said, “BUT, I never once heard you say that. I want you to say that upfront – to set the agenda; I definitely want you to send me away with it ringing in my ears; and everything in between should be making that message stand up and come alive”.
So the experience of the ‘ta-dah’ moment in the trick and my plea for a clear call to action combine to bring a much greater sense of focus to their presentations. I have every reason to believe that these people are brilliant at what they do, but it does seem to help having a financial ignoramus such as me asking some very basic questions to help in achieving that focus.
Then we can concentrate on some refinements such as ‘story telling with graphs’, matching body language to the words and using props to ‘fix’ a memory. A few clients have even gone on to take magic up as a hobby.
ML: So, really financial presentations are not so different to any other presentation. It’s about focus on what you want the audience to remember and do rather than just imparting a load of information. Do you have any final tips for making yourself memorable and keeping control of your key message?
NF: Yes, and this often takes people by surprise: Aim to avoid ending your presentation on questions.
ML: Why do you say that?
NF: Because it means you are leaving to chance the final and lasting impact of your key message. If you finish with questions, you may get lucky. Someone may ask a brilliantly insightful final question and you may be able to give a fantastic answer. But this approach is risky. It’s just as likely that some misfit at the back who has been itching to show off to his friend, finally gets to have his say. You answer him as best as you can and everyone files out with that ringing in their ears! My usual recommendation, therefore, is to say something like: “Before I conclude, what questions do you have”? Answer the questions and then say: “To conclude……” – and hit them with your key message, in a way that creates an ‘applause cue’ – a positive-sounding signal that you have come to a definite conclusion.
ML: That’s great advice Nick. Many thanks.
Mark Lee is consultant practice editor of AccountingWEB and writes the BookMarkLee blog. This and his ebooks are for accountants who want to stand out and be more successful in practice, online and in life. He is also chairman of the Tax Advice Network of independent tax experts.
Nick Fitzherbert is the author of ‘Presentation Magic’ published by Marshall Cavendish, and a trainer in traditional presentation skills using magic-based techniques to help business people direct and hold attention, as well as persuade and convince.
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