Whether the presentations class is in Philadelphia . . . or Mumbai . . . or Cali . . . or Chennai . . . I hear the same universal and eerie refrain from finance students.
“Finance is different.”
“We don’t do all of that soft-skill presentations stuff.”
“For us, the numbers tell the story.”
Numbers seem to enchant business-people in deep and mysterious ways, as if numerical constructs are somehow less malleable than the English language, less subject to manipulation.
In a chaotic world, a spreadsheet exudes familiarity, a firm valuation offers comfort, an income statement serves as anchor.
False Certitude, Faux Anchor
For some, numbers convey a certitude and precision unavailable to mere rhetoric. And this illusion of certitude and precision exerts influence on finance folks to believe that, well . . . that the laws of human nature that stymie the rest of us do not apply to them in the coldness and hardness of objective numerical analysis.
But this is an illusion. And the result is 2D presenting, full of voodoo and bereft of nuance and subtle analysis.
Where business presentations are concerned, finance folks are not different, special, unique or otherwise gifted with special powers or incantations denied the mere mortals who toil in marketing or human resources.
We are all subject to the same demands placed upon us by the presentations beast, demands that nettle us equally and indiscriminately during the business presentation process.
As with most things, there is bad news and good news in this slice of life provided here.
The Bad News
The bad news is that modern finance presentations are a vast wasteland of unreadable spreadsheets and monotonous, toneless recitations of finance esoterica. It seems that there must be a requirement for this in finance.
In fact, many finance presentations devolve into basic meeting discussions about a printed analysis distributed beforehand, with the group of presenters merely standing while everyone else sits and interrupts with strings of questions. Several presentation cliches guarantee this sorry state of affairs a long life . . .
“Just the facts”
Exhortations of “Just the facts” serve as little more than a license to be unoriginal, uninteresting, and unfocused.
“Just the facts”
Folks believe that this phrase gives the impression that they are no-nonsense and hard-core. But there is probably no more parsimoniously pompous and simultaneously meaningless phrase yet to be devised. It achieves incredible bombast in just three syllables.
What does it mean, “Just the facts?” Which facts? Why these facts and not those facts?
Events are three-dimensional and filled with people; they require explanation and analysis. Mere “facts” are flat, two-dimensional, unemotional, and unsatisfactory proxies for what happens in the real world. “Just the facts” masks much more than it reveals.
“The numbers tell the story.”
This is a favorite of folks who seem to believe that the ironclad rules of presentations do not apply to them. “We don’t deal with all of that soft storytelling,” finance majors often tell me. “We deal in hard numbers.”
There’s so much wrong with this that it’s difficult to locate a reasonable starting-point. Not only do numbers, by themselves, tell no story at all . . . if numbers were conceivably capable of telling a story, it would be a considerably incomplete story, giving a distorted picture of reality.
The end result of these presentation shenanigans is an overall level of mediocrity and outright bad presentations. If firms want nothing more than a group discussion about a handout, with the only thing distinguishing the “presenters” from the audience is that they are standing, then so be it. It may be useful. It may be boring. It may be morale-building. It may be team-destroying. It may be time-wasting. But whatever else it is, it is not a presentation.
“Cut ’n’ Paste”
This is the heinous data dump that all of us inevitably see. PowerPoint slides crammed with data in tiny, unreadable font. The display of these heinous slides is accompanied by a sweep of the arm and the awful phrase: “As you can see . . . ” The cause of this pathology is the rote transfer of your written report to a PowerPoint display, with no modification to suit the completely different medium. The result?
Slides from Hell.
The Good News
In every obstacle exists an opportunity. Because the bar for finance presenting is so low, if you invest your presentations with the powerful principles that apply to all business presentations, your own shows will outstrip the competition by an order of magnitude. This, of course, implies that your content is rock-solid. It should be. Your ratio analysis, your projected earnings, your sophisticated modeling should all reflect the superb finance education you have received.
But how you present that content is the key to presentation victory.
All of the presentation principles that we discuss here apply to finance presentations, particularly the parsimonious display of numbers and the necessity for their visual clarity. If anything, finance presentations must be more attentive to how masses of data are distilled and displayed.
A situation statement must be given.
A story still must be told.
Your analysis presented.
Conclusions must be drawn.
Recommendations must be made.
And external factors must be melded with the numbers so that the numbers assume clarity and meaning in an especially powerful 3D presentation.
If you do the above, and nothing more, then your finance presentations will outshine the hoi polloi with ease.
But if you delve even more deeply into the masterful techniques and principles available to you, learning to use your tools skillfully, you can rise to the zenith of the finance presentation world precisely because you are part of the tiny minority who seizes the opportunity to deliver an especially powerful presentation.
For more on presenting financial information in a suitable way, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.