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Five Ways Finance Professionals Can Tell Better Stories

  • By Brian Kalish, Director, Finance Practice Lead, AFP
  • Published: 3/13/2015

Communications is critical in financial planning and analysis (FP&A). Simply put, to be an effective finance professional, you must be a good storyteller. There are five guiding principles FP&A professionals should follow to be effective communicators and tell a compelling story.

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Choose the right medium.
  3. Know your business.
  4. Be efficient.
  5. Build relationships.

“We can look at a spreadsheet, report or graph and the numbers speak to us,” says Jokim Pluijmers, head of planning and control, consolidation and reporting of ING Nederland and a speaker at the upcoming FP&A Leadership Summit in Amsterdam. However, translating those numbers into an actionable narrative is both an art and a science.

To be truly effective storytellers, finance people must essentially translate numbers into a language that the whole business can understand—from the board to the C-suite, and across every department.

The audience
Any good stand-up comic understands that among the top rules of performance is tailoring your material to your audience. What plays in Las Vegas doesn’t necessarily play in Poughkeepsie. In similar fashion, what you tell the vice president of marketing may be the same thing as what you tell the managing director of human resources, but you may have to say it in two different ways. People tend to consume information differently, depending on various factors, including their role within the organization.

The medium
Once you understand how your audience consumes information, you can tailor your message to the right channel. Sometimes, a three-minute video will suffice. Alternatively, some people prefer an oral presentation, complete with a PowerPoint deck. Whatever the delivery channel, however, it’s important that the medium not outstrip the message. You may have a dynamic video, but did it get your point across?

Part of an FP&A professional’s job is being a teacher. It’s their responsibility to determine how to deliver information so that their “students” can best understand it—clearly, succinctly and powerfully.

The business
To communicate effectively, you must know your business—the whole business, from top to bottom—from marketing to the supply chain. You’re trying to convince various pieces of the organization to take action (or not). That entails having a rich understanding of each cog in the business gears. Why is your message important to them? What are you trying to motivate them to do?

As a support function, FP&A does not have the power to compel any department head to take action. Instead, it’s your job to tell a story that is compelling enough to convince them to take action.

The classic story structure (with some exceptions) has a beginning, a middle and an end. Finance doesn’t have that luxury. When FP&A people tell a story, they should start with the end, then explain why. If the story were a mystery, it would go something like this: The butler did it. He didn’t like the maid.

Efficiency also means picking the proper amount to tell, and moving on. You don’t have two hours to tell the story—you may only have two minutes. That means staying high-level and hitting the key points eloquently.

If you want to succeed in FP&A, communications is the key. When requesting information, think about how it’s going to benefit the person you’re asking—what’s in it for them? People don’t respond well (or at all, in some cases) if you show up only when you need something.

Having a reputation as a good communicator can only increase your value and your brand. Finding other FP&A professionals to share tips and ideas can further strengthen your brand. Staying educated and up-to-speed on FP&A essentials—including communications—is also critical to upping your value.

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