Finessing Financial Presentations

Superstar rocker Rod Stewart said it best when he belted out Every Picture Tells a Story. That song could have been titled: Every Number Tells a Story because financial presentations aren’t much different. If you want audiences to hear what you have to say, showing a bunch of graphs and balance sheets simply won’t cut it. Numbers, like pictures need to create a compelling story that draws listeners in and helps them understand what those numbers mean to them.

By learning to whittle your words into a few key ideas that suggest you understand their dilemma and are capable of solving their problems, you have a much greater chance of making them care. If they care, they’ll listen.

Think back on some of the presentations you’ve sat or should I risk saying— slept through, do you remember numbers the speaker spouted? For example, do you know that 40 million Americans are currently on food stamps? Maybe not. But you might recall that enrollment has set a record every month since 2008.

When put in perspective, numbers can drive points home. Consider a doctor trying to educate an audience about recognizing the symptoms of heart disease. If she said more than a million people suffer heart attacks every year and nearly half will die, you clearly understand the importance. However if she said: “We could be talking about your mother, father, and spouse or loved one which is why it is so important for you to recognize the warning signs of heart disease so the people you love can be with you for a long time”, those same numbers would be even more meaningful.

As a communicator, your job is to help people make sense of information so they understand what it means to them. By following these quick tips, you will help the numbers tell the story.

1. LESS IS MORE The more points you try to cover, the more you will dilute your message. Highlight three or four important issues and offer examples, stories and anecdotes to drive the points home.

2. ONE MINUTE WINDOW If you can’t articulate what’s in it for them and why they should care in the first minute, you risk tuning them out. For example, if you are talking about technology, do they really care the mechanisms that make the product work? Or would they rather know how the features can save time and money?

3. SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS Financial audiences love profit and loss statements but balance sheets alone won’t tell your story. Only you can do that. Help your listener understand how you will address their problems, market ideas, meet current challenges and make money.

4. SHOW AND TELL Serious doesn’t have to mean boring. Instead of scanning data onto a slide, use charts, models, graphs and pictures to bring your story to life. Share the important details but save the fine points for the handouts. Remember, no one came to see a slide show.

5. MOCK Q AND A Conduct your own mock question and answer session in advance. By thinking through potential questions and answers, you will be better prepared and minimize surprises. You can also practice marrying messages into your answers.

6. SAY IT OUT LOUD By rehearsing out-loud, you will internalize information, making it easier to recite and recall. You’ll also develop pace and rhythm helping you sound more polished, confident and assured.

7. DON’T WING IT No matter how good you think you are, people who “wing it” are setting themselves up to fail. The better you prepare, the easier it will be to stay focused, give meaning to your words and handle interruptions or unwanted questions.

Like all effective business communications, financial presentations should be interactive. That means encouraging thinking by posing thought provoking questions, providing examples and pausing to give people a moment to digest key facts. Finally, even if what you have to say makes them feel frustrated or disappointed, that’s okay. As long as they feel something, they’re listening.

Are Your Presentations Putting People to Sleep?

Since I have conducted a number of presentations with audiences ranging from a group of 6th graders to 75 networking professionals, I wanted to offer some advice on how to create an effective presentation. Good presentations and public speaking skills can help you to overcome other weaknesses you may have. Ever notice that the best speakers sell more, get promoted more and are good at impromptu discussions? Here are a few tips:

1- Know your audience. Don’t use industry jargon in front of people who will not be familiar with the terminology.
2- Practice in front of a mirror. You may be making strange facial expressions, wringing your hands, or pacing. These bad habits can distract you audience.
3- Watch the ‘umms’ and ‘you knows’. Take a Toastmasters class and the group will track your ‘umms’ using a clicker. You will be amazed at the number you rack up! This is a great place to practice speaking in a nurturing environment.
4- Vary your speaking tone. M-o-n-o-t-o-n-e is boring.
5- Pause during your speech and ask if people understand your points. Allow time to backtrack and provide alternative explanations to get your point across.
6- Beware of the use PowerPoint. 50% of the time it crashes and disrupts the momentum of your presentation. Dimming the light for more than 5 minutes puts people to sleep. The average human being has a 20-minute attention span. Looking at graphs in the dark is a great way to get people to use their cell phones to send emails.
7- Be careful with jokes. You do not want to accidentally offend your audience. A better idea is to use a humorous personal or made up story about you. Laughing helps people pay attention and relax.
8- Throw in a couple moves during the speech. Switch sides of the podium, walk in front of the audience. This forces people to follow you and not go comatose staring a fixed object.
9- Don’t read your presentation. This is a big no-no and the number 1 cause of audience boredom. If you have back up reading material, hand it our after you are done or email it later.
10- Limit your number of handouts. People will skip ahead and not pay attention to what you are saying.
11- If someone’s cell phone rings…STOP speaking until the offending individual mutes the phone. Everyone will stare at them, and feel bad for you. Sympathetic listeners are more prone to hear your message.

Have a big presentation coming up at your company? Beware of these 3 people.

The Casual Listener. This is the person who was made to go by his boss. He would rather be texting his buddies than hearing you.

The Numbers guy. He/she likes to look over your financial data and check you math for accuracy while you are presenting. This person can make you look like an ass when the questions come up at the end so make sure to double check your material for accuracy.

The Decision Maker. This is the most important person in the audience. If you know what he/she likes, you can make sure to hit those topics hard during your presentation.

Finally, be sure to make time for questions at the end of the presentation. If there are no questions, then you probably were unsuccessful at capturing the audiences’ attention. Make sure your presentation will cause people to ask questions by doing a dry run for a trusted colleague. Have them make suggestions on how to stimulate the crowd. Give some of these tips a try and see if they help your career down the road.

Presentation Design – Why is “Good” So Rare?

Your job as a presentation designer is to make ideas into visual images. For your presentations to unambiguously require the least possible effort on the part of your audience to “get it”. The difference between a visual that works and one that fails is good design.

To appreciate of how good design adds to the quality of our lives, it helps to look at some examples of truly bad design that we all deal with on an everyday basis. Bad design abounds, and everyday our lives are a little less pleasant for it.

The really unfortunate thing about poorly designed objects is that countless unpleasant times might have been spared if only the designer had thought through his or her approach a little more thoroughly. The line between good and bad design is often fine. It can be no more than positioning a button in a spot not easily accessed by mistake; a label placed where it could actually be seen before the wrong action is taken; a multi-step process where you don’t have to get to step seven before you realize you did step three wrong; or a lever or handle shaped more like the movement it wants you to make.

When you acquire a more developed sensitivity to design, you begin to look at all things with questions such as, “Might it have been better to do it this way?”, or “What would it have taken to make it work like this?”

Then take a look at the last presentation you delivered. Do you suppose there were elements that caused even temporary confusion? And then when you explained the element, did they say, “Oh I get it – but why didn’t you just say it this way?”?

All bad designs cause the expenditure of more effort to produce the same result. The more effort it takes to absorb your message the less energy is available for processing the message itself. Effort causes discomfort. In the presentation environment, that can mean disaster because -for the very same reason- discomfort leads to disassociation from the message. That’s why professional trainers make certain the learning environment is as comfortable as possible – fresh water, good seats, frequent breaks. “The mind can only absorb what the buttocks can endure” is old but still relevant. Bad presentation design is a pain in the ass, and it stops message uptake just as quickly.

Now let’s step back from presentations for a few moments.

Think about the various devices – electrical, mechanical, architectural, digital, whatever – that you use or come in contact with on a daily or weekly basis. Keep in mind that anything manufactured for human consumption was first designed by a human. You know that some humans are more talented than others. If you’re like most people, you have probably been annoyed or frustrated with a device than was designed by one from the less talented group.

Next time you use your hair-dryer, notice whether the high-low switch works the way you would expect, or to affect a High setting you need to push the switch to its Lower position. Can you get water into and coffee out of your drip-style coffee-maker without dripping any of either? Where does your refrigerator spew more ice – into your glass or onto the floor? Can your friends operate your microwave without your showing them how?

Discussing how design affects our everyday lives is purposeful in getting you to think very hard about how your presentation designs affect the people you subject them too, and why it is worth the effort to do them well. And although it is kind and thoughtful to design in ways that enhance, rather than detract from, the quality of your audience’s experience, the bottom line is simple: good design goes down easier. You need every opportunity to get your audience on your side, and you must allow nothing in your control to discomfort the people you’re trying to persuade. As Edward Tufte says, “audiences are fragile; respect them”.

One last sad truth about bad design is that so many people who are frustrated by things that don’t work think it’s their fault! When people don’t understand what they’re told, or audiences don’t understand what they see on the screen, they often blame themselves – they believe that they’re either stupid or slow or perhaps they simply learn in other ways.

Ask yourself: Do your presentations have a less-than-evident “operating system?” Before someone can get your message (the function of your presentation) do they first have to learn and comprehend your design?

Your main goal when designing a presentation should be to keep your audience’s attention on your idea, your pitch, your proposal—your message. They should never be distracted by, or even really aware of, your design. Dazzling them with bells and whistles will help them remember the bells and whistles, not your message. You need to make your message the star so that nothing takes their minds away from it.

Your audience has gone to some effort to let you speak your piece. Thank them for showing up by rewarding them with good design.