Communication has long been a challenge in the finance profession. Communication during a pandemic — when our offices have been pushed into our homes and we’re all struggling with any number of classifications of fatigue — can feel next to impossible.
AFP recently caught up with John Sanchez, communication consultant with The FPA Group, to get his take on the current state of communication in the finance profession — and what we can do to improve.
AFP: Decisions are made on narratives and numbers. Finance is trained on the numbers; how can we think about narratives in support of our quantitative analysis?
Sanchez: It’s helpful to consider that finance professionals are typically thought of as left-brain thinkers because they are involved in analytical pursuits. It’s easy to assume that since the left side of the brain is associated with analytical thinking that it’s best to speak to that side of the brain when communicating numeric information. The truth is, we all use both sides of our brain and stories are a great way to involve both.
Facts and figures can be incorporated in stories, but the very format of narratives is proven to be more engaging. Some research suggests facts conveyed in stories are remembered six times better than those presented on their own. I use a simple example to drive this point home in many of my presentations. I simply ask the audience to complete the phrase, “May the force …” Without fail, a majority of the audience quickly replies, “… be with you.” Many people who answer weren't born until decades after “Star Wars” came out, so why do they remember that line and have difficulty remembering specific numbers from a presentation? It was part of a story.
AFP: We have been talking about improving communication for a while. How does finance differ from other parts of the business, and why is this still so hard?
Sanchez: There are two key reasons for this. One is a perception that communication skills are intrinsic characteristics. They’re not. Communication skills are absolutely learnable.
Another big reason is the lack of commitment from leadership to make communication skills development a priority. All you need to do to see evidence of this is to look at the composition of the body of knowledge required for various professional certifications. However, once an organization or individual commits to investing time and money in their communication skills development, results will follow.
The pandemic has made communication skills jump onto many leaders’ radar, as they realize it’s harder than ever for their teams to communicate effectively while working remotely, so the outlook is improving.
AFP: There is bound to be some tension between the imperatives of “bringing your whole self to work” and maintaining a professional demeanor. How can we navigate those?
Sanchez: In a word, context. Building rapport with colleagues is easier and more effective when people have shared context. Shared context can come from similar interests or past experiences, or it can come from intentional acts designed to build rapport.
Team-building exercises give people a chance to see how they work together in challenging situations in a low- or no-risk environment, thus building like and trust feelings. Once people like and trust each other, it’s much easier to be yourself without fear of judgement.
AFP: A common point of emphasis that frequently comes up when discussing communication is the ability to listen effectively, but is this a skill that you can develop or is it more a matter of knowing when to give others the opportunity to speak?
Sanchez: Effective listening is one of the most critical communication skills, and it absolutely can be developed. The starting point is more mindset than anything else. You must go into it intent on listening to understand. This sounds so simple, and it is, but most people listen simply waiting for their turn to talk. It’s a simple shift in focus, but the results are significant.
Another valuable listening skill is feeding back what the speaker has said. Whether you paraphrase what they say or use their exact words depends on context, but generally using the person’s exact words is more impactful.
AFP: With so many currently collaborating in a remote work environment, what do you see as the most common barriers finance professionals are facing that make it difficult for those on the receiving end to interpret the message? What can leaders do to help their teams overcome these barriers?
Sanchez: Engagement and boundaries are two of the most common problems I am asked about. Common questions include: How do you keep people engaged in group virtual meetings? How do you maintain boundaries when working from home?
Engagement in virtual group meetings is a challenge, and I’ve heard some people consider making it mandatory to participate via voice and/or video. Mandates are almost always a bad idea. People may not want to go on camera for meetings for a variety of reasons, some of which are totally valid. Don’t assume they aren’t going on camera because they don’t want to be involved. Talk to them one-on-one and see where the organization can help.
Maintaining boundaries between work and personal life is tougher when the physical place in which you do both is one and the same. Do whatever you can to segregate a workspace. Use time blocking to prevent family from interrupting your work time and stick to it. Something you can do to add some flexibility to your boundaries, while still staying productive, is to take scheduled breaks throughout the day. This provides opportunities to check in with family members, unwind and refresh yourself.
AFP: Is there an easy method for determining the level of detail one should provide or display when delivering a data-heavy presentation? Does that differ when presenting virtually?
Sanchez: The first imperative is to get clarity on the goal of your communication. Are you primarily presenting information to help someone make a decision? Are you trying to persuade them to buy into something, like a big capital project? How could you present the information in a story format to make it easier to understand? Are you simply sharing information, like a monthly dashboard designed to show progress toward goals?
Once you’re clear on your goal, chunk your level of detail so you can provide a high-level summary and have more detail available if someone asks questions. Think through every possible question someone could ask about the topic and be prepared to answer and support your answers with good data. Then, present the high points and don’t create confusion by spilling all the details on everyone. If someone asks, you’re prepared to dive deeper, but be concise and clear and go deeper only if you are asked to.
Communicating effectively is an important skill that can help finance professionals enhance their career, and help guide an organization to more impactful decisions. Check out the Career Development track at AFP 2022 for educational sessions on this topic.