Everyone agrees that Seth (a fictional character based on a real person) is a nice guy. As Chief Financial Officer of a large public corporation, Seth is under a lot of pressure, but even when dealing with tough issues like cost-cutting, he's always considerate, supportive and . . . yes, nice.

But when it's time to communicate, Seth runs into trouble. He's fine presenting results to senior management, the board and analysts, because those stakeholders expect a dull-and-detailed analysis of the numbers.

The trouble comes when Seth needs to share information with colleagues in other parts of the company. Seth is very precise (which is a good thing), so he always uses the same detailed slides he shared with the board. And he's very comprehensive, so Seth insists upon covering every single freaking financial fact.

The result? People's eyes glaze over. They pretend to understand the terms and try to follow Seth's narrative, but they start thinking about grocery lists and soccer practice instead of paying full attention. As a result, colleagues leave without a clear picture of how the company is really doing financially, and they're not sure what (if anything) they should do as a result.

I was reminded of Seth when reading a blog on CFO.com by John Touey, principal at an executive search firm. The post, How to Fight The Perception that You Can't Communicate, takes a defensive tone when describing how finance people communicate:

"It's a common conceit that when you take the spreadsheets away, your average CFO/controller type will be at a loss as how to order takeout, let alone communicate a company's vision to its teams," writes Mr. Touey.

"That's an inaccurate and ungenerous portrait of most of the financial leaders I know. They are no more or less able to communicate effectively than . . . their CEOs or peers in other functional disciplines."

I agree with Mr. Touey that poor communication isn't limited to finance leaders. I'm sure readers could cite examples of Informational Technology leaders who speak in their own, strange language or Research & Development leaders who overwhelm colleagues with scientific terms.

But in my experience, finance people struggle more than most. As I said about Seth, their strengths (precision, completeness) become weaknesses as finance people delve into the details so much they sacrifice the big-picture messages they're trying to convey.

Mr. Touey asserts that perhaps the problem is not "that CFOS are bad communicators, but rather that some of their audiences are generally uncomfortable in dealing with the subject matter."

True, Mr. Touey. But that's just an example of how CFOS and other finance people have the curse of expertise--they're so knowledgeable about their topic that they overshare details instead of simply explaining the point. As Richard Saul Wurman, founder of TED Talks and author of Information Anxiety, explains: The problem with experts is that "you ask them the time, and they will tell you how to build a clock. They fail to provide the . . . threshold into each thought" so audience members can gain access.

So what can finance people (or anyone) do differently when they communicate? We'll focus on presenting, since it's the most common way most of us share information.

First, remember that your role is not to disseminate information--it's to provide focus and meaning. Next, take these 6 steps:

  1. Start at the end. Before you make another move, decide upon outcomes. Ask yourself, "What is my ideal desired state? What will participants know, believe and do by the end of my time with them?"
  2. Create your big idea. Most listeners will recall no more than 25% of your presentation. That means all those little details will fade away as quickly as you can say, "Short-term memory." So you need to hone in on the one or two important concepts you need people to remember.
  3. Choreograph the experience. When I'm getting ready for a meeting, this is when I decide whether presenting is even the best way to meet my desired outcomes. I channel Presentation Guru Nancy Duarte, who wrote, "The whole purpose is to enable people to learn. Your mission is not to transmit information but to transform learners." So I design the experience to achieve my objectives and meet the audience's needs. Sometimes that means building in simple techniques like posing a question and asking for a show of hands. Other times, I create sessions in which I never actually present, but build interactive exercises to involve participants.
  4. Structure your story. If a presentation is needed, this is when you figure out how to tell your story. Like any good drama (or comedy, for that matter), your presentation needs a story arc, the narrative thread that, yes, tells your story. Without it, your presentation is flat. It doesn't move, or move participants. So think about the structure of your presentation as a story, like this: First we faced this challenge. Then we decided to try this. We did it, but encountered this new obstacle. So we did this other thing. And here was the result. Success!
  5. Use a lot of slides. Put aside those vision-ruining charts you use at board meetings. Instead, use PowerPoint to propel your content forward. Don't read your slides, but do use them as a visual reinforcement of what you're talking about. And use a lot of slides to give participants something new to look at throughout the session. (After all, slides are free.)
  6. Be tangible and specific. Platitudes, truisms, philosophy, theory--all boring. They're too abstract for participants to connect to. Instead, the best presenters combine concepts with specific examples. "Let me show you what I mean," they say. As a result, participants pay close attention.

Next time you see Seth, send him my love--and share these suggestions on how to be a more effective communicator.

Published on: Jun 8, 2017