The CFO’s New Imperative: How to Tell the Story of Your Numbers

At a recent roundtable discussion in Singapore, Hsiao Yun Liew described the interview process she had to go through. “They gave me a spreadsheet full of numbers,” she recalls. “One hour’s time, and I had to do a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation.”

She aced that one. Singapore-based Liew is now FP&A Manager at global data intelligence consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

For non-financial people such as marketing and sales folks, the numbers in a spreadsheet file “could very well be in Dutch”

More and more these days, finance professionals are expected to tell a story, not just report the numbers. This extends to traditional documents such as the annual report, where narratives show up in the management discussion and analysis section, footnotes and variance analysis.

In a 2012 survey by CFO magazine in collaboration with IBM, six out of ten finance executives in the US said they were spending more time developing narrative analysis than they have in the past.

“What stakeholders want, and those in internal management need, is a better understanding of what all the numbers mean,” says the report. “CFOs are filling the role of company storyteller as the narrative analysis that accompanies their reports – both internal and external – continues to expand.”

Thirst for Narrative                                                                  

It’s not just the writing. “I think the other thing which is a very important skill is presentation skills,” says Jeremy Gray, CFO Asia Pacific at WR Grace, who was also a roundtable discussant. “In this day and age, if you can’t present, your career isn’t going to go very far.”

For non-financial people such as marketing and sales folks, the numbers in a spreadsheet file “could very well be in Dutch,” adds Brian Kalish, Director, FP&A, at the Washington-based Association for Financial Professionals.

They need finance to tell a story. They don’t want to see a massive report or a spreadsheet. They want a narrative. “Things are getting better and here’s why.” “Things are getting worse, and here’s how to prepare the company for the coming storm.”

The numbers may make perfect sense to finance, but they must be communicated in a narrative. “Deliver the numbers in a language that management of the day can understand and appreciate,” counsels William Tan, CFO at Singapore-headquartered Metal Component Engineering Limited.

Storytelling Tips

But how do you do that?

Here are some pointers based on Making Data Meaningful: A Guide to Writing Stories About Numbers, prepared by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Write like a journalist. Structure your narrative as an ‘inverted pyramid’ – your conclusions first, followed by secondary points in the order of decreasing importance.

“You build on your story line throughout the rest of the text,” the guide suggests. “If the text is long, use subheadings to strengthen the organization and break it into manageable, meaningful sections.”

Write clearly and simply. Use language and a style that a lay person (not a  finance professional) can understand. “Pretend you are explaining your findings to a friend or relative who is unfamiliar with the subject.”

Make your first paragraph a brief story about the data. The first paragraph should not summarize the entire report. Instead, it should provide the most important and interesting facts.  

“Don’t pack it with assumptions, explanations of methodology or information on how you collected the data,” says the guide. “Give enough information so the reader can decide whether to continue reading.”

But keep it brief. “Some authors suggest five lines or fewer – not five sentences – for the opening paragraph.”

Avoid jargon. Terms that are meaningful to you as a finance professional may be foreign to the board or to the CEO. “If you have to use difficult terms or acronyms, you should explain them the first time they are used.”

Good images can tell a story too. Combined with words, they can amplify, reinforce and clarify your narrative

Try to use the following:

  • Short sentences, short paragraphs
  • One main idea per paragraph
  • Subheadings to guide the reader’s eye
  • Simple language: “Get,” not “Acquire”; “About,” not “Approximately”; “Same,” not “Identical”
  • Bulleted lists for easy scanning
  • A good editor. Ask a colleague to read your report.

Avoid the following:

  • Elevator statistics: This went up, this went down, this went up . . .
  • “Table reading,” that is, describing every cell of a complex table in your text

What About Graphics?

Good images can tell a story too. Combined with words, they can amplify, reinforce and clarify your narrative.

Good statistical graphics:

  • Show the big picture by presenting many data points
  • Are “paragraphs” of data that convey one finding or a single concept
  • Highlight the data by avoiding extra information and distractions
  • Present logical visual patterns

Use graph types that are appropriate to the data. For example, a line graph is best for data over time, while a bar graph is effective to for data in categories. And provide a topic sentence as headline for the chart, as below:


Presentation Tips

Often, your narrative has to be turned into slides for presentation. CFO Innovation has written about this in Presentation Tips: For the CFO, What Works and What Doesn’t.

Briefly, our tips include:

  • State your objective at the outset
  • Prune the number of your slides – 12-20 slides for a 30-minute presentation with a question-and-answer portion are about right
  • Don’t cram too much information into one slide
  • Structure your presentation as a narrative
  • Be engaging

Work in Progress

Many finance professionals are more comfortable with numbers and spreadsheets than with well-chosen words and images. But it is also true that most, if not all, can divine a story from those very same figures.

The need is to communicate that story to others in the company and to external parties, including investors and the media, in an engaging and persuasive way.

It’s a work in progress, but the CFO and would-be CFO who master these skills will almost surely have a long and rewarding career – and will help lead his or her company to greater heights.

About the Author

Cesar Bacani is Editor-in-Chief of CFO Innovation.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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