The Secrets to Financial Storytelling (Why Data-Driven Presentations Fail)

Risk abounds.

The early 1960s was a time of international turmoil for the United States. The Iron Curtain was at its peak in Europe, the Cuban missile crisis was underway in North America, and Vietnam was raging in the Far East.

President Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, went to board Air Force One and was asked by the pilot, “Where to, Mr. Secretary?” Rusk reportedly responded, “Anywhere—we have troubles all over.”

Similarly, there are lots of ways to fly your financial presentations directly into serious trouble.

Below are three of the most common reasons financial presentations fail.

Or to put it another way, here are a few secrets to successful financial storytelling.

  1. You don’t have a financial story.

    The Problem: Financial presentations quickly go south when the information isn’t presented in the context of the business story you want to tell. Simply describing the data you’re presenting doesn’t add value to or give context to individual financial charts and tables.

    You put yourself at risk anytime you rely on “the numbers” to convince your audience of what conclusions to draw or actions to take—or of the benefits of your recommendations.

    The Secret to Success: Present a logical financial story that progresses step-by-step (or slide-by-slide) in your presentation. Take your audience on a meaningful journey so that they, too, see how you arrived at the conclusions you did or why you’re making the recommendations you’re making.

    Throughout the journey, financial data is the supporting actor—not the star. Headline your charts and tables with the insights and conclusions you’ve drawn from the numbers you’re presenting. Your headings should not simply describe the data shown on a slide. For example, the heading “2017 Sales by Region” doesn’t provide any meaningful context or move your audience along. Alternatively, the heading “Region X Grew Twice as Fast as All Other Regions in 2017” tells a story.

  2. The start of your financial story isn’t compelling.

    The Problem: Unless you ban smartphones, tablets, and computers from your meeting, you’ll be competing for your listeners’ time and attention from the second you start presenting. Kicking off a presentation with scrolling numbers, exploding pie charts, or spinning data tables won’t grab people’s attention—it’ll just confuse or bore them.

    Starting your financial story that way only makes participants think:

    • “I’m too busy for this.”
    • “Get to the point.”
    • “Why, again, was I told to be here?”
    • “How is this relevant to me?”

    The Secret to Success: The most effective opening to any presentation is quick-hitting, no-nonsense, and to-the-point. A great opening is timely and relevant to your audience, immediately grabs their attention, and leaves them eager to hear more.

    So start your presentation by showing you’ve done the work to understand what your audience is up against—and that you’ve got a way to help them tackle it. Use financial data to support your opening statement and prove that you get it. But be careful. There’s an old saying that tool buyers don’t want ¼-inch drill bits, they just want ¼-inch holes. In other words, your audience only cares that you get what matters to them—not that you know how to manipulate financial data onscreen.

    Use simple, illustrative charts and data visualizations only for the purpose of lending clarity and credibility to the points you’re trying to make or to the story you’re trying to tell. Never use them just to show off your financial or technical acumen.

    How can you demonstrate your understanding of your audience’s situation within the first two minutes of your presentation?

    Use this simple 3-step storytelling introduction:

    1. Summarize the situation they’re facing.
    2. Describe specific opportunities or challenges that make it important to act.
    3. Finish with the risks or consequences of not taking action NOW.
  3. Your financial story closes with a whimper.

    The Problem: Your opening hooked your audience but what you want them to do next is fuzzy. A lack of clarity about your specific recommendations—what needs to be done, when, and by whom—will cause confusion and delay decision-making.

    Failing to close your presentation with the benefits of taking your recommended actions leaves people unsure of whether or not to proceed.

    The Secret to Success: Just as important as a compelling opening, your closing needs to be clear and convincing.

    What’s the best way to persuasively communicate your recommendations, next steps, and benefits of moving forward?

    Use this simple 3-step storytelling closing:

    1. Communicate your recommendations clearly and candidly. Substantiate them with data where it lends power and credibility.
    2. Plainly describe the specific actions you want your audience to take.
    3. End with strong benefit statements that describe the likely positive outcomes of taking your recommendations.

    This is where “the numbers” really shine in their supporting role. Use your data and analysis to PROVE the value of the recommendations you’re making.

    And make sure your closing statement answers the most important question on listeners’ minds: “What’s In It For Me?”

Did you find these ideas helpful? Start implementing them right away using this tool.

Download Mandel’s 6-Step SCI-PAB® Personal Communications Framework. SCI-PAB is a storytelling structure you can use to plan your financial presentations and more effectively communicate in ways that resonate with your audience and motivate them to act.

Picture of Bob Sherwin

Bob Sherwin

As Corporate Development Officer, Bob oversees Mandel’s corporate and financial strategy, new business channels and partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, and business process re-engineering. Bob has spent more than 30 years as an executive, leader, coach, and mentor in some of the world’s largest and most successful training and development companies. Prior to joining Mandel, he spent 11 years as the Chief Operating Officer of Zenger Folkman. He is a co-author of the best-selling McGraw-Hill book How to Be Exceptional: Drive Leadership Success by Magnifying Your Strengths. His articles have appeared in such publications as Forbes, Training Magazine, Chief Learning Officer, and Business Insider. Bob holds a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from the United States Military Academy and an MBA in finance and accounting from the University of Michigan.
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