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The Dos and Don’ts of Financial Storytelling

A Comprehensive Guide for Ambitious Female Leaders

Hey there! Today, we’re diving into the do’s & don’t of financial storytelling—a superpower that can take your career to new heights. As someone with a career peppered with many twists & turns, I never thought I would reach the CFO seat. But when I did, I know it was the use of storytelling I used in my career that really helped me get there. I know  firsthand the transformative impact of storytelling in the finance world. 

So let’s buckle up and explore the dos and don’ts to help you become a financial storytelling pro!

The Dos of Financial Storytelling

1. Know Your Audience and Tailor Your Message

Understanding your audience is like discovering the secret treasure map to their hearts. Take time to learn what drives them, what keeps them up at night, and what makes their eyes light up. Tailor your message accordingly, using language and examples that resonate with their interests and concerns.

Whenever I was going into a financial presentation, whether it was with the board, the executive team, the management team or even the whole company, I would ask these three critical questions to ensure my message was tailored for the right audience: 

  1. Who is in the room?
  2. What do they care most about?
  3. What action do I want them to take after hearing the numbers?

2. Craft a Compelling Narrative

Numbers are powerful, but stories are unforgettable. Find the right story arc to weave your financial data into a captivating tale. Start with a relatable problem, dive into the financial insights, and conclude with a compelling resolution. Embrace anecdotes and real-life examples to humanize the data and make it more relatable.

In one presentation, I used the journey of a struggling startup to illustrate the challenges faced by our company.  And when it came time to discuss our current company’s challenges and the solution we needed to take, everyone was already bought in because of the story they heard first.

3. Be Confident and Authentic

Imposter syndrome can be a buzzkill, but remember—you’ve earned your seat at the table! Embrace your unique leadership style and be true to yourself. Authenticity creates a genuine connection, helping you build trust with your audience.

Early in my career, I struggled with imposter syndrome and felt the need to mimic other leaders. But as I grew into my role, I realized my strength was in connecting with people through my warmth and approachability. Embracing this authenticity transformed the way I communicated, making me a more effective storyteller.

4. Use Visuals to Enhance Understanding

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially in finance! Ditch the overwhelming spreadsheets and use charts and graphs to illustrate your points visually. Visual aids make complex information digestible and enhance the impact of your story.

My rule of thumb is to always use on slide per idea. Anymore and your visuals become less effective.

5. Ask Lots of Questions About the Numbers to Find the Right Stories

Numbers can be intimidating, but don’t shy away from them. Dive in, ask questions, and get curious! Explore the why behind the figures, and you’ll uncover the hidden gems that will enrich your financial stories.

For one quarterly presentation, I noticed a larger than anticipated dip in revenue. If I didn’t use this opportunity to ask a lot of questions I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to provide tremendous value by highlighting that the sales decline was due to a retention issue we were facing and not a sales issue. Our sales team actually exceeded forecasts but our loss in existing customers negated any revenue gains from sales and reflected a negative trend in the financials. If I hadn’t asked a lot of questions to understand the numbers better, it may have been multiple quarters later until we began to address our retention problem.

6. The Simpler, The Better

Finance-speak can sound like a foreign language to some. Keep your language simple, avoiding unnecessary jargon. Break down complex concepts into relatable terms that everyone can understand. Simplicity ensures your message is crystal clear.

The Don’ts of Financial Storytelling

1. Avoid Jargon and Technical Language

Repeating this one because it’s crucial—jargon overload can lead to glazed eyes and disengagement. Speak in terms everyone can grasp, and your message will resonate more effectively.

This also aligns with the very first Do to know your audience. If your audience regularly engage with financials, feel free to use terms like EBITDA or any other jargon you use. But if your audience is less familiar with jargon, avoid it.

2. Don’t Rely Solely on Numbers

As much as we love numbers, they can’t stand alone. Support your financial data with real-life examples and emotional appeal. A human connection through storytelling will make your message memorable and impactful.

3. Steer Clear of Overwhelming Information

We get it—you have tons of data to share. But don’t bombard your audience with every detail. Prioritize key messages and keep your narrative focused and concise. 

In my early career, I thought presenting every data point would impress stakeholders. But I learned the hard way that less is often more. By focusing on essential insights, I captured the attention of my audience and avoided information overload. Also, if there is financial information you know your audience will want to know, but can’t weave into your presentation without overwhelming them, send this to them in a supplemental file after your presentation. They can always get more detailed information shared that way.

Nurturing Your Financial Storytelling Skills

Now that we’ve covered the dos and don’ts, let’s explore how to nurture your financial storytelling prowess.

1. Seeking Feedback and Constructive Criticism

Feedback is a powerful tool for growth. Seek input from colleagues, mentors, and trusted advisors to refine your storytelling abilities continually.

2. Practicing Storytelling in Different Settings

Take every opportunity to practice your financial storytelling. From team meetings to board presentations, each setting presents a chance to refine your skills.

3. Embracing Ongoing Learning Opportunities

Learning is a never-ending journey. Attend workshops, training programs, and industry events to gain new insights and perspectives.

4. Building a Supportive Network

Surround yourself with mentors and sponsors who champion your growth. Engage in networking events to connect with other inspiring leaders.

Questions about this at all? Feel free to reach out! I love helping female finance leaders elevate their career by using this essential skill! 

August 6, 2023

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From Cookieprenuer to a C-Suite Financial Executive, Liz knows that living outside the box is possible and wants to empower others to know they can do the same.

Financial Executive. coach. Female leader + AAPI Encourager.