Tell Better FP&A Stories: The Ultimate Style Guide for Financial Reports
As CFOs and their teams work with an increasingly diverse range of data, they need to go beyond interpretation and become highly articulate with what they share.
Nobody is asking finance professionals to produce a tale as charming and funny as Toy Story, or any other movie animated by Pixar. They don’t have to develop a plot as suspenseful as a John Grisham novel or Stephen King novel. And no, CFOs are not expected to suddenly sound like the hosts who narrate the best programs on National Public Radio.
If they want their financial reports to be memorable, however, finance leaders need to harness elements of classical storytelling techniques and weave them in somehow. After all, the material they now have at their disposal simply deserves nothing less.
A few months ago, for example, a report from consulting firm Accenture titled The CFO Reimagined: From Driving Value to Building the Digital Enterprise, showed that eight in ten of the executives surveyed agree “data storytelling” is an essential skill for today’s finance professional. In other words, the combination of both traditional and non-financial data has been critical to allowing CFOs and their teams to conduct the kind of analysis that can help make their organizations more successful.
Translating The ‘Foreign Language’ Of Finance
The end result of that analysis, however, has to be clear, accessible and actionable based on whichever audience happens to be looking at it. In a research brief from the CGMA, for example, getting across key messages in a way that’s thorough but also simple is quickly becoming an art among the most successful CFOs:
You worked hard to master the vernacular of accounting. Unfortunately, it might as well be a foreign language to your audience. Warren Buffett has said that he writes financial reports like he’s talking to his sisters. “I have no trouble picturing them: though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them.”
To be fair, many finance professionals might not think of themselves as born writers. Instead, they might want to concentrate on acting like a good editor. A blog post from the Chartered Professional Accounts of Canada suggested pruning and curating the contents of a financial report to make sure the best or most important data comes first.
“The sheer volume of financial and other data in corporate reports is overwhelming. Think about the information your reader will value the most,” the blog post said. “Emphasize the most significant and relevant information first and layer in more detailed information based on relevance and importance. Open with a succinct executive summary and organize subsequent information in such a way that additional details can be easily found.”
A design firm called Column5Media offers some other great ideas of how to expand the scope of the story an annual report tells by considering how it can touch upon other organizational highlights. These could include points that tie back to company culture, anecdotes that show how money is allocated to build trust among shareholders or even to indicate a longer-term vision.
If all this sounds daunting, it might be because finance professionals see the reporting they do as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and an end. The best financial reporting is more of an ongoing story, however -- a serialized account of how sound decision-making is helping lead everyone towards success.
You’ll know you’re telling a great story when you get questions, or the audience starts generating ideas, or when you see decisions framed within the context of what you’ve told. And that, in turn may provide the inspiration for the stories you tell next.