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Finance experts are all about the numbers. From analysis to application, they have perfected the language of spreadsheets and endless streams of data. It's what makes them the best at their jobs and invaluable assets to their organizations. The problem? While finance experts understand the numbers they see, oftentimes others don’t. With a more collaborative workplace becoming the norm, it’s important that everyone involved in decision-making knows just what they’re looking at.
This is where storytelling comes into play. CFOs can use a narrative to help give their colleagues, investors, or clients some perspective—but many executives simply don’t know where to start. If you’re struggling with how to craft a compelling storyline out of numbers, here are a few tips to help you give your data more meaning to the people around you.
Tell the truth
The most powerful stories are genuine, and the ones CFOs tell about finances are no exception. “At its simplest, a story is a journey whose beginning and end you can see,” says Leigh Buchanan of Inc. Magazine. “But instead of choosing the most efficient or scenic route, you choose a route that will bring you and your audience to the destination changed.”
Telling the truth can create a lasting impression on your audience. Craft a narrative around something that your audience can connect with and rely on. Start with a story that moves you, and look for ways you can apply it to your subject. When your colleagues can directly relate to patterns in data, they’ll be more likely to treat it with the level of importance it deserves.
You don’t have to spin an elaborate tale to get attention. In fact, it may have the opposite effect. Simple, personal stories are often more relatable and ring true with the people you’re sharing them with. Create a deeper emotional connection with your audience by sharing the struggles and triumphs that your organization has been through.
A positive emotional response can mean good things for business, says Neuroeconomist Paul Zaks. With the right story, you can build trust, increase understanding, and develop a spirit of empathy. The people who are listening to you will stay engaged and remember the points you made—long after a string of numbers has faded from memory.
Adjust your style for your audience
Everybody learns differently. Some people might respond to a verbal narrative, while others may connect best with a story through visual cues. Consider using a combination of verbal and visual techniques to get your point across to people who learn in different ways.
When it comes to numbers, the way you frame it can make a powerful impact on your audience. In an article for Entrepreneur, Future Technologies CEO Asha Saxena says that visualization may be the easiest way to tell a data story. Use quality tools that can export data directly, and represent it accurately. From pie charts to pictures that enhance your narrative, the right technology can give your audience the clues they need to piece together the data puzzle.
Keep telling stories—it’s worth it
Storytelling is a skill, but it’s one worth honing, especially around complicated topics that need an extra element of understanding. Organizations depend on the finance department to give them accurate information, but it doesn't mean anything to a CFO or data analyst without a story to fill in the gaps.
That’s your mission: communicate clearly and powerfully to bring everyone together. Developing your storytelling prowess will take time—but the rewards of open communication and collaboration is worth it.
Read this guide to get examples of how teams are implementing visualization today.
About the Author
Mike Rost is a key contributor to product strategy at Workiva and works with business leaders in the areas of financial reporting and compliance. With more than 25 years of experience assisting organizations using technology to optimize business processes, Mike has an extensive background in finance and accounting, corporate performance management, and GRC technology. Mike was a founding member of XBRL International with involvement in the XBRL initiative dating back to 1999. He has also been active in industry associations, including the Open Compliance and Ethics Group (OCEG) and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA). Mike has a bachelor's degree in economics and an MBA in marketing and finance from the University of Minnesota.