How to Give Oscar-Worthy Explanations of Finance

Team collaborates around table with sketch of film reel

Plenty of financial experts offered up lessons learned following the release of The Big Short, Oscar nominated in the best picture, acting, directing, editing, and writing categories. No doubt, the film—which cleverly chronicles the lead-up to the financial crisis—provides many important takeaways for financial professionals, investors, lawmakers, and just about anyone interested in a functional economy.

Yet for CFOs and their finance teams who are interested in communicating more effectively with their business partners, the most relevant lessons may be found in the devices and techniques the movie uses to convey complex and confusing concepts to a broad audience. Nowhere is that more apparent than the brief scene that features pop star Selena Gomez sitting alongside behavioral economics guru Richard Thaler at a crowded casino blackjack table, where they deftly break down the intricacies of synthetic CDOs—that is, synthetic collateralized debt obligations.

Considering 75% of CFOs rank interpersonal/communication skills as a key skill needed by their teams today, according to the CFO Indicator Q4 2015 report, finance leaders and FP&A professionals can learn a lot from this pop star/actress. With the 88th Academy Awards airing Sunday, Feb. 28, take note of the film’s Oscar-worthy explanations of finance.

Chart of most popular skills for finance

Download the CFO Indicator Q4 2015 Report for more survey results.

The filmmakers use Gomez’s blackjack hand to illustrate the initial “bets” that synthetic CDOs represented and the ensuing side bets on bundled debt that led to a big boom—and inevitable bust. At one point, the filmmakers superimpose on the screen an engaging graphic of a basketball swishing into a hoop to illustrate “the hot hand theory.” That, Thaler explains, is “when people think whatever is happening now is going to continue to happen in the future.”

By the end of the scene, the average viewer is far more likely to grasp the concept of synthetic CDOs than he or she would have been after reading, say, the Investopedia definition.

So how does this relate to your finance team? After all, you probably can’t book a glamorous superstar and a legendary economist to attend your next meeting with human resources or marketing. Yet, the next best thing may be to take a cue from the movie’s approach to explaining complexities. In short, find ways to make the information you are sharing accessible, understandable—and dare we say it … engaging and fun.

The first step is to ask a simple question of your team: How can we explain this information in ways that might be easier to grasp by someone who doesn’t work in finance all day? Dashboards—with the capabilities of presenting data and insights in a range of easy-to-understand visual formats—can certainly help. By leveraging those dashboard capabilities and adding some creative twists, you can significantly reduce the eyes-glazed-over looks when meeting with business partners.

In addition to the key payoff of more effectively communicating information, taking The Big Short approach can help. Here’s our take on how to improve communication with your business partners:

Take 1 iconShow you’re human
Yes, you crunch numbers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor or find new ways to make those numbers come alive. Finding engaging ways to deliver complex information can help crack the stereotypes of the finance department and lead to stronger relationships.

Try teaching finance terminology at a casual brown-bag lunch, or offer informal workshops in finance for non-finance staff. Or, try starting meetings and presentations with humor; use imagery, cartoons, or funny sayings to help tell a story. If you’re more of a foodie than a pop music fan, watch celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain explain CDOs in his The Big Short cameo. It might spark some ideas for you.

Take 2 iconFoster collaboration
Even if you don’t pull off a presentation as cleverly as Gomez or Bourdain might, people will take note of your effort to communicate with them in clear and creative ways—and get them involved.

For example, when budgeting, don’t just email spreadsheets to complete. First, schedule a one-to-one meeting with the department manager so that the budget itself becomes the basis for a bidirectional conversation in which finance learns about the marketing team’s goals and challenges. And who knows? Maybe some of the creative types on the marketing team will offer their talents to help create future finance presentations in more engaging ways. That could be the first step to ongoing collaboration, making the next budgeting discussion that much easier.

Take 3 iconBridge the communication gap
The truth is, there are likely plenty of times that business partners say nothing in a meeting because they are afraid it will make them look uniformed or clueless. Taking a more casual or creative approach to sharing information can help melt that reticence and create an environment in which people are more comfortable asking questions and sharing their insights.

Try banning Excel spreadsheets from your presentation slides. Your audience likely won’t have enough time to read and digest the information if they haven’t seen it before. Instead, for each slide know the answers to two questions: What’s the key point? and So what? Get to the point fast, and remember that vocabulary you use every day—return on assets, liquidity, run rates—may be unfamiliar to some if your audience is not fully finance-fluent. Know what your jargon is, and be selective about how you use it in meetings.

Take 4 iconStrengthen your team’s soft skills
Maybe this creative stuff isn’t second nature to finance types. But that’s all the more reason to try it. Having a brainstorming session—even if the ideas never make it to prime time—starts getting your finance team thinking about the value of communication and collaboration. And improving those skills stands to benefit everyone involved.

Of course, not every meeting needs a clever twist. Yet finding the right opportunities to share information in clear and engaging ways can go a long way toward fostering a more collaborative relationship with business partners.

Now that’s a gamble worth taking.

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To learn more about the skills and talent requirements CFOs have for today’s finance teams, download the CFO Indicator Q4 2015 Report.

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