While interpreting Excel spreadsheets to extract finance data is bread-and-butter stuff for accountants, how do you get your point across to stakeholders from other areas of the business?
According to Robert Half, the top two challenges identified by Australian CFOs in 2017 were managing business expectations (54 per cent), and pressure to improve performance and margins (45 per cent).
Finance teams are increasingly expected to act as business partners on the future direction of the business, which means finding better ways to communicate insights – financial data in particular – to business stakeholders and other departments.
Not everyone is receptive to poring over an Excel spreadsheet to try and understand business performance, market demand and strategic outcomes. The pressure to present information succinctly and with more impact is prompting a growing number of finance professionals to search for alternatives to Excel, according to Mark Sands, BOARD’s general manager of business intelligence and performance management software solutions.
Many are searching for integrated software that allows for better data visualisation and advanced analytics, he says.
Put yourself in your audience's shoes when preparing a presentation
Preparing a presentation that uses data to make a point is a combination of art and science, Sands says.
“Not taking user experience into account is one of the biggest failings of finance professionals when preparing a presentation.”
When preparing a presentation full of financial data, he stresses that it’s important you consider your audience first.
“Make sure you understand exactly who you’re presenting to, and how much they understand about financial information and technical terms.”
Dynamic models, column charts, pie charts, what-if scenarios and Venn diagrams can all translate complex spreadsheet data into visualisations that stakeholders can understand at a glance, from simple year-on-year sales results, to what will happen to production time, cost and risk if you make changes to your supply chain.
Sands also suggests doing a practice run: give your presentation to someone who isn’t familiar with your findings, to check they understand your key points and take away the right messages.
Pick your data – but not too much of it
With any audience, there’s a limit to how much new information they can digest and remember.
“The average human brain is drawn to a few data points, then the ability to absorb any more information is reduced. Throwing a mass of numbers at the screen will mean you risk losing a large chunk of your audience,” says Sands.
The rule of thumb is to communicate one key message per slide or screen. This may be supported by two or three different data points, so the audience can follow your thinking.
Ensure your key recommendation or finding from the data is clearly expressed.
“While it’s powerful to let stakeholders follow your argument and come to the same conclusions you have as you present the data to them, making your insights clear in the presentation itself will be critical for people who might be reading or viewing it at a later date,” Sands says.
It’s also useful to create a story from your data, as this helps stakeholders remember and follow your arguments. This might be a simple timeline summary of what’s happened over the past three years in a particular business area, or you could use a case study or track an individual customer to demonstrate what the data is telling you about the market.
Remember, your audience is human
The human brain has evolved to notice elements that are moving and brightly coloured. These are design elements you can use to highlight key data, insights or recommendations. The flipside? Beware of confusing people with multiple messages, all vying for their attention.
“Just because the program you’re using can allow you to use a wide variety of colours or to present data in multiple chart types, doesn’t mean that you should,” Sands says.
While plenty of business intelligence and graphics programs offer a variety of presentation tools and options, steer clear of too much information and motion on each screen or slide and, unless you happen to be a budding graphic designer, use colour sparingly, he advises.
Find out more
Visit www.board.com to see some of the data visualisation techniques KPMG, GlaxoSmithKline and others are using.