Secrets to creating a great presentation

Show business

Whether it’s to show team performance or convince the board to back a key initiative, financial data needs to be presented with visual power.

What is a picture worth? When you’re presenting information to clients, it can mean the difference between comprehension and a blank stare.

Colourful KPI displays and dashboards are becoming de rigeur for even small business accountants, thanks to an explosion of online-based reporting apps. Visual aids are more effective than numbers at telling a story – and that is the key to a good presentation, says consultant Peter Quarry. 

Marcus Small“When someone tells you a story, particularly a character-driven story, this causes [the hormone] oxytocin [to be produced] in your brain, which will motivate you to cooperate,” says Quarry, a former psychologist and owner of Creativepsych.net. 

Many accountants make the mistake of viewing a presentation as a vehicle for imparting a lot of information, he says. Instead, the goal of a presentation should be to persuade the audience to take action. “If you’re just conveying information, why give a presentation? Give them a handout,” advises Quarry. “If you’re giving a presentation, then there has to be an element of persuasion. People need to be clear on the goal they are trying to achieve.”

Professional Development: Basic presentation skills: Creating a presentation – this course describes how to make the key parts of a presentation memorable and effective. It also explains the purposes for which different presentation aids are used and how to use visuals appropriately. Learn how to rehearse a presentation – a key step in building confidence for the real thing.

A story has three elements: characters, a plot and emotional tension. That emotion could be anxiety, suspense, anger, optimism or curiosity. Quarry also recommends “turbocharging” stories by using metaphors. For example, if you’re trying to uncover financial facts about a company, you could talk about drilling for oil in the search for oil wells.

"If you're giving a presentation, then there has to be an element of persuasion." Peter Quarry, creativepsych.net

Marcus Small, an expert in building dashboards in Excel, says dashboards are popular because they reduce information overload. “CFOs are throwing their hands in the air and saying there is too much information,” says Small, director of TheSmallman.com

Tim Timchur“There is a drive to summarise information to the consummate single pager.” 

It takes a lot of hard thinking to decide on the most important KPIs to an organisation. Once the CFO has chosen the metrics, the business leaders can glance at the page, identify issues to flag and take action. “If your company has liquidity problems, then you can see it straight away on a dashboard. You don’t need to read a 30-page report,” says Small. 

The static dashboard may not cut it in larger businesses. Instead, business intelligence tools can give board directors the ability to drill down from a dashboard to the underlying numbers for closer examination. 

"CFOs are throwing their hands in the air and saying there is too much information." Marcus Small, thesmallman.com

Peter QuarryAccountant and experienced data analyst Tim Timchur says interactive dashboards “can avoid the myriad paper-based printed reports and enable users to discover insights rather than ask for more reports”. A chairman could, for example, look at a profit and loss report and view the underlying transactions in one account, or go through expenses line by line for a specific project. 

Timchur, who consults to mid-sized companies, uses a range of powerful Microsoft programs for analysing large data sets. The software can monitor a stream of data from internet-connected devices or sensors and analyse the aggregate flow in real time.

“With live data from IoT [Internet of Things] devices, we don’t have time to write data to a table and query it. We have to analyse it as it flows past the process,” he says.

Timchur uses Power BI to visualise internal data and then other tools such as Data Lake or Data Factory to “mash” publicly available information with a retailer’s transaction data. He believes that interactive dashboards are changing the nature of board reporting. 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for directors to get closer contact with the underlying data in organisations,” he says.


Tips for presenting

  • When making graphs, pick colours that complement your client’s brand. Your client will instantly identify with the colour scheme and the report’s contents. Marcus Small
  • Ask management what they want to see before making a financial report or dashboard. Do a quick paper mock-up, give it to them and use their feedback. Repeat the processb until the report is complete. If stakeholders aren’t invested in the report, they’re not going to pay it much attention. Marcus Small
  • Break your presentation into “nuggets” two to three minutes long. Change rhetorical devices for each new nugget; for example, moving from dry facts and figures to a case study, story or question. Peter Quarry
  • Studies show that if you interact with the audience, it increases their comprehension and retention. For example, run a poll, ask how the audience would solve a problem, or explain an issue. Peter Quarry
  • A third of the way through a presentation, ask the audience for feedback. How am I doing? Is this too basic? Am I going too fast? Peter Quarry
  • If you’re anxious about giving a presentation, calm your nerves by pretending that you’re confident. If you’re anxious about being too anxious, acknowledge this to the audience. It will help to defuse the tension. Peter Quarry

Read next: 7 ways to improve your business presentations (without using PowerPoint)


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