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Why Treasury & Finance Pros Need to Tell Stories

  • By Ira Apfel
  • Published: 5/8/2018

Doug Stevenson thinks you’re making a common mistake if you’re not telling a story in your presentation.

Stevenson is the CEO of Story Theater International and a former actor in Hollywood. As the creator of The Story Theater Method, and a master storyteller and coach, he’s taught storytelling to clients at Coca-Cola, Verizon, Deloitte, Google, Microsoft, The Department of Defense, US Bank, NBC, Oracle, Wells Fargo, and many more.

Stevenson will keynote the FP&A Luncheon at AFP 2018, this November in Chicago. He recently previewed his session on the AFP Conversations podcast.

Ira Apfel: Why is storytelling so important for a treasury and finance professional? Isn’t it enough to show some data on slides?

Doug Stevenson: Well, the challenge, if you’re a financial person and it’s all about the numbers, is that numbers themselves are very hard to process. They’re challenging, they’re very left brain logical linear. But they’re not engaging, so in corporate, in an association, in an organization, when you go in to make a presentation, the people sitting in that room are preoccupied. They’re busy. And they might’ve had three or four presentations before you walked into the room, and everybody else did numbers.

Well if you do numbers followed by numbers followed by numbers followed by the next person does numbers, the next person does numbers, pies, graphs, charts and graphs ... Eventually, the bullet points, the numbers, the text on a PowerPoint slide will put people into what I call a “content coma.” It has an effect on the brain, the brain starts to get numb. Because it’s not easy to continually process left brain stuff.

So if you can walk into a room and you know, “I’ve got a 90-second little story, it’s just a little vignette. It’s not some five-minute motivational speaker story, it’s just a little story that sets the context.” And quite honestly, a lot of the stories that I ask people to tell are not logical and linear to the situation, they’re metaphorical. And so you’re going to walk in and say, “I’ve got a lot of numbers that I’m going to present here today, you know I came in with numbers, you want the numbers, but what I’d like to do is set the stage for the numbers to create a little context with a 90-second story. Would you give me permission to do 90 seconds of a story to create the context for the content that’s going to follow?”

Well, if you’re the fourth presenter, they’re all going to go, “Oh my God, please tell a story. Do something different.” Because they’re starting to get numb. I work with corporations all the time where people are going in and everybody’s got their five or ten minutes. And the poor Board of Directors or whoever it is, they’re sitting there watching 23 people come in, and they’re going brain dead. So they want something that stimulates a different brain energy. And stories create the visuals and they create emotional.

Ira Apfel: If I’m going to be reporting the quarterly financials to senior management and I want to tell a 90-second story, do I make something up?

Doug Stevenson: No, you’re actually looking for something that has happened in your life that is metaphorical to what we’re talking about. So let’s say you walk in and you’re going to make a presentation, and you know that your need is urgent.

And you’re trying to get across to these people the urgency, not just that you need the money or you need the staffing or whatever it is that you’re going to present. It’s the urgency, that’s the message you’re trying to get across is urgency. So now you tell a story about going to the airport, the one we just talked about. You tell a story about going to the airport, arriving a little bit late, walking up to the counter, and it’s like, “Oh my gosh, there’s like 30 people in front of me in the check-in counter, and half of these people don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And one person has already been up at the counter for 20 minutes, and I gotta get going, and I gotta move it along.” And then finally I get my ticket and I go rushing over and it’s like, “Oh my God, even pre-check line has got 40 people in front of me, this is ridiculous.” And I’m running out of time.

Now you’re telling a story that has nothing to do with treasury or finance. You’re telling a story about being in line and having urgency. That story about being in line and trying to get through check-in and getting to your gate and finally getting onto the plane is a metaphor for, “This is important that we get this funding and this staffing now, because we all need to get on the plane and get on board and get going to the next destination, which is achieving our goal for next year.”

Now you just told a story that’s a metaphor. It had nothing to do with finance, and the minute you start talking about, “I went to the airport to Dulles the other day and had to check in.” The minute you start talking about going to the airport in Dulles, they don’t know where you’re going. Now they’re engaged. Now they’re intrigued, because it’s not logical and linear, you’ve gone off on a detour. Detours are very, very smart, because they cause the person to have to pay attention to where you’re going because they can’t figure it out. If you sit down and you walk in and you pop up a PowerPoint deck with a bunch of bullet points, they know exactly where you’re going, and it’s not very exciting.

Ira Apfel: What’s the one piece of advice you would offer to a treasury and finance professional?

Doug Stevenson: Well, the one thing you need to do is think story. “What am I trying to accomplish in this meeting?” Not just delivering the numbers, you’re not just there just to deliver numbers. Well, occasionally you are, but in many instances you’re there to engage someone’s attention and teach a lesson. Inspire them to action. So think story. “What is the story that I could tell that would illustrate the principle that I am trying to share, and it’s also something from my life that would give somebody a window into who I am?”

So, if you’re going into a presentation to deliver a bunch of numbers, but you can predicate it with a story about going on vacation to Hawaii, or checking in at Dulles Airport and having a real hassle, or having the greatest meal you’ve ever had at a restaurant but the service was terrible. Whatever that story is, think story. So the way you think story is, “What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want to get out of this? What is the principle that I’m trying to teach here?” Not just the numbers, the numbers tell you something. The numbers say, “We’re doing fine.” Or the numbers say, “We’re in deep trouble.” Or the numbers say, “We need to do this in order to get where we want to go.”

The numbers say something. Well, predicate the numbers with the story that’s a metaphor for it, and then do the numbers.

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