“Is this good news or bad news?”
That was my boss’ reaction after reading a financial analysis I wrote early in my career. He really didn’t know. He didn’t understand my references to accruals and timing differences.
And really, he didn’t care — he just wanted to know whether he needed to take action.
Arguably, our first responsibility as accountants is to inform, to communicate, and yet, I wasn’t required to take a single course in communications during my formative years.
We talked about how to calculate and present the numbers, not how to help people understand them. And when someone asks us to explain accounting, we tend to start with debits and credits.
It’s like teaching someone to drive by explaining how an internal combustion engine works!
How many companies ask a communications consultant to look at their Annual Report? One of my clients, an international mining firm, did. I complimented one of their executives on how clear their statements were. That’s when he gave me this tip:
Tip #1 – Nobody Reads Financial Statements
Sad, but true. Other than financial people, the best you can hope for is that annual report readers will skim.
So, if you want to get your message across, make it blindingly obvious. Make sure that if all the reader does is glance at the headlines, they will get the message.
[Aside – while nobody reads them, you can bet that at every annual meeting there will be someone with a pocket calculator adding up all of the columns of numbers so, to avoid embarrassment, make sure all the columns add.]
Here’s another tip (gleaned through experience):
Tip #2 – Nobody Listens to the Accountant
Well, maybe this isn’t always true, but you’ll have to admit that accountants have a reputation for being predictable, talking endlessly about trivial details, dwelling only on costs and being bearers of bad news.
Have you ever been to a movie where an accountant is portrayed as a charismatic leader, worth listening to? Neither have I.*
All is not lost, however. It just means you’re facing an uphill battle to get people’s attention. Here are some strategies to get noticed:
- Remind your audience of your mandate, e.g. commenting on last year’s results, signalling the need for a major change, helping the audience make a decision or just a formality (in which case, be brief!)
- Help the audience understand why your presentation is important. What’s in it for them?
- Unless your mandate is to delve into the detail, stick to the highlights. People are easily confused by strings of numbers. Remember, you are trained to see the relationships between numbers. Your audience may not be.
- Connect the dots between your analysis and the action the organization should take. Make sure your presentation answers the question, “So what?”
- Pictures are better than tables. Stories are more memorable than numbers.
- Add in some humor, show that you are human, and emphasize your biggest point with words as well as numbers, for example, “If you remember only one thing from this presentation, let it be . . .”
Tip #3 – Don’t Try to be Superman
Finally, remember that nobody does it all. When you are immersed in the details every day, it can be difficult to rise above them.
Good presentation skills can be learned, but now may not be the moment to address that need. If getting up in front of an audience fills you with dread, feel free to delegate (and then go out and take a Toastmaster’s course!)
*My brother pointed out that the accountant, Oscar Wallace, who wants to get Al Capone on tax evasion in The Untouchables, is a portrayed as a man of action.