Presentation Tips: For the CFO, What Works and What Doesn’t

I’ve been held hostage by numerous presentations and so have you. As a CFO, you probably have had to mount the podium yourself and wield a laser pointer in internal meetings, earnings announcements and best-practice sharing in professional conferences.

What works best and what can be improved?

I’ve been chairing the CFO Innovation forums for five years now, from our two-day conference in Singapore to one-day gatherings in Hong Kong (to become two days this year), Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Shanghai. I’ve also attended any number of media briefings and investor roadshows.  

Here are some presentation tips that make a jaded journalist like me – and I reckon other audiences, including your fellow CFOs – sit up, pay attention, and stay engaged.

Know why you are presenting  

Of course we all know why you are making the presentation – the boss asked, and you couldn’t say no. What I mean by this is the intended purpose of the presentation, what it is that you hope to achieve.

I like to think that there are three basic purposes of a CFO presentation:

To report what has happened or is happening. One example is a presentation about the annual report or the quarterly financial results.

To share insights, opinions or best-practice experiences. This is what we ask CFO-presenters in our various CFO Innovation forums to do. But note that you are also expected to share your analyses in the earnings presentation, in addition to reporting the numbers – or you will be forced to in the question-and-answer portion of the presentation.   

To persuade others to adopt a recommended course of action. This is the ultimate objective of investor roadshows, presentations to banks and other lenders, customer interactions in support of the sales team, and so on. You may need to report and share insights in order to convince.

Your objective typically determines the material that you present, the way it is presented and your demeanor and style of presentation.

Start with a joke or story – or not

The usual advice is to open with a joke, a telling anecdote or a personal story. That’s fine and often works. But not always, because different purposes and situations demand different approaches.

I have heard CFOs crack a joke in a media earnings presentation. Said one: “It’s time for a quick nap as I go through the numbers. But if you want to stay awake, there’s coffee at the back.”

I think that kind of self-deprecation is OK, but please make it brief. The objective is to report what has happened and what may happen going forward, so it’s best just to get on with it. The numbers are what everybody is there for, particularly media people on deadline.

When the purpose of the presentation is to share insights or to persuade, a joke or an anecdote helps pique the audience’s attention at the outset.

Here’s how Jeremy Gray, CFO Asia Pacific of chemicals giant W R Grace, started his presentation on integrating acquired companies in the CFO Innovation Asia Forum in Singapore in 2013:

“I’m going to talk to you today about what I’ve learnt in doing a number of integrations of acquired companies in a number of different cultures. I wouldn’t say I’m good at it, but I’ve got a lot better over the years.”

“I look back at my first acquisition, it was in Japan. It was a very small acquisition; we only paid about million dollars for the company, and to be honest it was a disaster. Fortunately it was only a million dollars, so it did not affect my career that much.”

State your objective at the outset

Jeremy clearly laid out the objective of his presentation. So did Ysmael Baysa, CFO of Asia’s largest fastfood company Jollibee Foods, at this year’s CFO Innovation Philippines Forum. He said:

“I consider my being here as part of my service to the financial community for professional development and also for sharing our experience for learning for the financial community.”

“I’ll be talking about leveraging cloud technology to support our dramatic growth. First, let me brief describe to you the vision of Jollibee Foods Corporation.”

I think it’s useful for presenters to state what their objective is so the audience will know what to expect. Equally important, you as the presenter will be forced to be clear in your mind what you aim to achieve.

You should keep this objective in mind while preparing you presentation deck. When you come to the last slide, can you honestly say that you have fulfilled what you promised to do at the start of your talk?

Prune the number of your slides

I’ve seen a presenter submit a 72-slide deck. Why so many? “I’m not going to discuss each one,” I was told. “I’ll skip most of them, but it’s good for the audience to read the details at their leisure after the presentation.”

Maybe so, but it is distracting for the audience to see the presenter zip through material that may be interesting to some of them. They may wonder what they’re missing even as you as presenter focus on a particular topic.

If your intent is to give the audience access to more information, prepare a second deck with all 72 slides. But use a shorter version – 12-20 slides for a 30-minute talk with a question-and-answer session – in your actual presentation.

Make each slide count

This doesn’t mean you must cram as much information as possible into each one. I’ve seen slides with what looks like 9-point or 10-point font size. That’s too small even if the projector screen enlarges the text.

And because the font sizes are small, you might be tempted to clutter the slide with many other elements, such as flow charts. In an article on LinkedIn, consultant R. Srinivasan used the slide below to illustrate the excessive lengths a presenter can go in terms of clutter:

Not this

I like this slide by Beyond Budgeting author Steve Player, who was a presenter in the CFO Innovation Asia Forum in Singapore three years ago. He tackled the topic of business forecasting and budgeting. This slide is clean, uses a clear font and several sizes, and contains graphic elements that do not crowd or clutter the space. 

Try this


Structure your presentation as a narrative

People like to hear stories. I notice that the well-received presentations in our forums tend to tell a story within and among the slides.

Reg Singh was CFO of educational provider Knowledge Universe when he made a presentation at the 2012 CFO Innovation Hong Kong Forum. He structured his talk as a narration of where his company was, how it got to where it is now, and how it plans to get to where it wants to go:

“We set up our headquarters for our international business in Singapore in 2007. At that point we just acquired a bunch of different businesses. Our challenge for us was, because we have different systems in different countries, we were very disparate.

It took us 25 days to close the accounts. We didn’t have consistent metrics across our business. We didn’t have visibility into all of our business operations. And we were constantly looking back. As a result of that we had process inefficiencies, our reporting capabilities were not strong, and from a finance perspective, we were not aligned with the business.”

Be engaging

One of the most enjoyable presentations I heard was one on the megatrends of the future and the impact of the cloud and Big Data on business and accountancy. The presentation was by author and futurologist Magnus Lindkvist (pictured), who spoke at the ACCA Singapore Annual Conference 2014 in May.  

He dressed the part, looking like Doctor Who from the future – complete with scarf and what looked like a modified tux. He was a gifted mimic and took on various personas and accents – a German, an Englishman, a Frenchman and so on – to make his points.

He talked about Finland’s Nokia, which 30 years ago was a diversified conglomerate that wasn’t doing particularly well. But it acquired a visionary chairman, who made a famous speech in 1986.

Putting on a heavy Finnish accent, Lindkvist quoted the chairman thus: “I believe in Finland becoming a global country. Look at Sweden. Whenever there’s a plane crash somewhere in the world, there is a Swedish person aboard the flight. I want there to be a Finn person on every flight, too.”

It’s probably too much for CFOs to dress in costume and do voices like the late Robin Williams. But it always pays to practice being conversational, warm and engaging.

Presenting to fellow CFOs has its advantages, because you and your audience have a shared language and experience. It’s a bit different when you’re presenting to the CEOs and the board, and still different when your audience comprises shareholders, bankers, analysts, members of the media.

But they are all people. If you can engage with them on the human level, they are more likely to hear you out and accept what you have to say.

About the Author

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

Photo credit: Shutterstock