A new client recently challenged me to explain what I could do to drum up some interest in a dry financial presentation.

Let’s be honest, financial presentations are rarely the most entertaining of presentations. Even the most devoted professionals have a hard time getting excited about a financial presentation, especially these days – when we’re competing against increasingly dynamic online and offline content.

I’ve seen my share of glazed eyes myself, and I know first hand that It can be a real challenge to make financial presentations come alive to people across an organisation, so that they are embraced as a critical step toward achieving corporate goals.

But it’s a worthwhile challenge. Over the years, I’ve figured out how to make financial presentations more engaging, and the key for me has been to follow the same 9 guidelines every time. I’ll share those presentation design guidelines with you today.

Turning Complex Data into a Compelling Story

financial presentation-03

The guidelines I’ll cover serve an important role: they help me take all that dry, dull financial data, and turn into a great story. Because people respond to stories. Certainly better than they do to data.

Data will appeal to analysts, but what I’ve found is that to maintain your audience’s interest you have to give a human context to the numbers. And even data analysts are not just analysts: they are people. And they’re interested in stories about events and people.

Content is King

financial presentation-04So how do I do that? Well to start with, I always focus on the content of the presentation. Long before I turn my attention to aesthetics. Why? Because redesigning weak content is like putting lipstick on a pig… You can dress it up, but it’s still a pig.

1. Know your Audience

To financial presentation-05get your financial presentation into shape, the first thing I  need to do is get familiar with my audience. Obviously, I wouldn’t build the same presentation for a team of senior executives as I would for line managers or for sales representatives.

Depending on the audience, I’d use different examples, a different level of detail, and even different design elements.

For example, when they’re well done, PowerPoint animations can really liven up a presentation. But sometimes, busy C-level audiences get impatient with animations and prefer to have everything displayed on screen at once. So I might go light on animations in a presentation to executives.

2. Use the Right Language

financial presentation-06What else depends on the audience? The language I put into the financial presentation. My goal is to make sure that the audience isn’t drowning in jargon and acronyms that they aren’t familiar with.

Because  if they don’t understand the words that are being spoken, and they’re too embarrassed to ask, the presenter will lose both their attention and their trust. Plainer language puts everyone at ease and makes them more receptive.

3. Tell them Why they Should Care

financial presentation-07Part of knowing your audience is understanding what they care about. When I’m preparing a financial presentation, I like to know what drives my audience in their jobs, which outcomes they use to measure success. That helps me emphasize the right numbers, and present them in a way that will resonate with them.

When I have to build a financial presentation for operations teams whose biggest concerns are not financial, I try to tell them why the numbers matter, why they should care.

For example, if I’m showing profitability forecasts by product, I might explain that the numbers are important to determine which initiatives show the most promise and merit further investment, and which programs are doing less well and may need a new plan.

4. Tell them What the Numbers Will Help Them Do

financial presentation-08Next, I try to understand what types of decisions the data can help its audience make. I can then build a financial presentation that emphasizes the usefulness of the numbers, and makes sure that positive actions are taken as a result of the presentation.

For example, if I’m presenting CRM data to sales managers. I can show them data points like the number of proposals that have been placed, the closing rates, average selling prices, etc. And that might be moderately interesting to some.

But if I tell them that the data will tell them how many more proposals they need to put out each month to hit their revenue targets, then suddenly the presentation becomes much more compelling and useful.

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5. Trim the Extras

financial presentation-09Once I have identified the content that really matters to the audience, and helps them make important decisions, I try to be discriminating about what more I add.

At the end of the day, the audience isn’t going to have an endless attention span. I stick to the important points without cramming in extra information that isn’t relevant to the audience. If I have backup information I think the presenter may need, I save it for handouts and appendices. That’s what they’re there for.

Packaging the Content

financial presentation-11So far, all of these guidelines are about the content of the presentation. At this point, I’ve gathered all the right data points to convey a story and, organized them according to a flow that makes sense, or that matches the flow dictated by senior management.

The remaining guidelines are about how to package up the information to make your financial presentation more engaging and more meaningful.

6. Make It Visual

financial presentation-12I always try to make my presentations – financial and otherwise – as visual as possible.

They say that visuals improve learning by 400%, and that visuals are processed more than 60,000 faster than text. Here’s a case in point.

I’m amazed at how often I still see data tables in financial presentations.

financial presentation-13Compare this table on the left to the chart on the right. They both show exactly the same data. Look how much faster we can see what’s going on when we look at the chart vs. when we look at the table. Which do you think would leave the most lasting impression?

Which do you think would leave the most lasting impression?

Use the Right Chart

financial presentation-14Also, I make a point of choosing the best chart for the data to highlight the trend. Generally speaking, pies are best to show percentages, column charts make it easiest to compare items in a range, and line graphs are a great way to show trends over time.

But every case is different.

I try to make sure that every time I show numbers, I’m finding the best way to make the trend jump out and to create an impact.

7. Reduce the Clutter

Clutter in your home or office space makes it hard to find what you’re looking. In much the same way, visual clutter in a financial presentation distracts from what’s important. I try to eliminate visual clutter wherever I see it, to make what’s important stand out.

financial presentation-16Text Clutter

One type of clutter we often see is text clutter — slides that are completely overrun with bullets. People can either read your slides or listen to you. Not both. A slide like this one isn’t a slide. It’s a document.

Instead of cramming all that text onto one slide, I try to think of each slide as a billboard. My goal is usually to put a single idea on each slide. It’s not always possible, but if you can do it, it will make for a much more impactful financial presentation.

Chart Clutter

financial presentation-17There’s another type of clutter that I’m constantly battling. Chart clutter. Both of these charts show exactly the same information. But the one on the left is cluttered up with unnecessary visual elements like axis titles, labels, gridlines, tick marks, data tables, etc.

By contrast, the chart on the right is clean, uncluttered, and easy to read. It creates a greater impact, without losing any information.

8. Make the Data Meaningful

financial presentation-18Some of us are numbers geeks, but most of us are not. What I’ve learned is that many people have an adverse reaction to numbers.

They’re intimidated. They have a mental block. They say their brains don’t think that way. They think they can’t understand the numbers. For those people, we have a job to do. We need to make the data meaningful.

Use Benchmarks

financial presentation-19A number is meaningful only if you compare it to another number. One of the best ways I’ve found to make data more meaningful is to provide context through the use of benchmarks.

On its own, I’m not sure what to make of the fact that product 1 sales have increased by 8% relative to last year.

That must be good news, right? But if I put it side by side with the sales variance of other products, the picture changes. And when I add the targeted growth rate, I get a clearer picture still.

In each case, I try to find the best benchmark to support the data and message – whether it’s a target, or last year’s number, or an industry average.

Tell Them if the Numbers are Good or Bad

financial presentation-20There’s a more direct and obvious way to make data more meaningful to your audience: Go ahead and tell them whether the numbers are good or bad.

I’ve done a fair amount of dashboard reporting. And I think the features that were most widely appreciated in my dashboards were probably visual alerts that told users, at a glance, whether a trend was positive, negative, or neutral.

I’ve adopted the same tactic in some of my financial presentations and have found it to work really well, because even if your audience misses some of the build-up, or gets distracted or confused along the way, then these types of alerts will come to the rescue with a clear and concise summation of the facts.

9. Summarize the Takeaways

And finally, speaking of summations, my ninth guideline is to always close your financial presentation with key takeaways. At the end of any financial presentation, even a really good one, the audience will have seen a ton of information. Even if it’s clear along the way, they can sometimes feel a little overloaded and lost at the end.

That’s why I like to wrap up with the most important takeaways from the presentations, and a reminder of a few key actions that they can take right away.

Over to You!

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably had to build and deliver your own financial presentations. What do you think of my guidelines? I’d love to hear if you’ve tried them and how they’ve worked out for you.

Have you got your own tips and tricks? Please share. The world needs more engaging financial presentations!

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