Numbers Without Narrative? Time to Rethink That Board Report

Many finance leaders feel more comfortable with an empty spreadsheet than a blank notebook. But in today’s data-deluged world, every CFO needs to be a storyteller who injects meaning into numbers. This holds especially true at corporate board meetings, when the directors—who probably aren’t involved in the company’s day-to-day operations—require fewer data points and a clear big picture.

Many finance leaders feel more comfortable with an empty spreadsheet than a blank notebook. But in today’s data-deluged world, every CFO needs to be a storyteller who injects meaning into numbers. This holds especially true at corporate board meetings, when the directors—who probably aren’t involved in the company’s day-to-day operations—require fewer data points and a clear big picture.

Board members will better remember your presentation and better understand the company’s strategic position if you refrain from assaulting them with context-free numbers. So how do you tell a good, boardroom-appropriate story? Start by avoiding these three mistakes that we showcased in a recent webinar.

Problem #1: You don’t know what you’re trying to say

In order to create a great narrative, you first need an extremely thorough grasp of your results. If you don’t receive your numbers early enough to digest them before you have to send meeting materials out to the board, you obviously won’t have time to craft a compelling story.

The fix: Be sure you can quickly access your numbers

Finance teams run out of time when data is scattered across lots of different spreadsheets. Those spreadsheets’ static nature creates huge headaches when it comes to producing timely reports, quickly. Rather than scrambling to gather information from a variety of stakeholders, consider a cloud-based reporting tool that centralizes your numbers and allows you to pull them seamlessly into PowerPoint. By using the right system, you can finish your presentation almost immediately after the accounting teams close their books. Then you’ll have ample time to work on the narrative before you have to send the material out to the board.

Problem #2: You don’t edit enough

Nearly every first draft in history has been way too long. Writers have an impressive command of the English language, just as finance leaders have an impressive command of their companies’ key performance indicators (KPIs) and data points. It’s human nature to want to show off just a bit.

The fix: Remember your audience—and cut, cut, cut

Does a reader care about—or even remember—the minor character introduced on page three who doesn’t rematerialize until chapter 20? Probably not. Plus, that character probably distracts from the main plot. Similarly, your board probably doesn’t have a huge appetite for 40 different marketing KPIs. Get rid of them, and keep your presentation concise. Sharing only the most important and relevant data points automatically makes them seem more important and interesting to those following along. Also resist the urge to create an appendix with every chart and slide that didn’t make the cut. No board member wants to plow through 80 random slides slapped onto the back of the deck.

Problem #3: Your ending is ambiguous

Ultimately, your board wants the same thing a reader wants: Greater understanding. Offering only a recap of your company’s past and synopsis of its current performance is akin to writing an ending that leaves everyone hanging.

The fix: Be sure your presentation concludes with clarity about the future

Whereas CFOs of old could simply report metrics from the previous month or quarter, today’s strategic finance leaders must offer a forward-looking vision. Your board wants loose ends tied up: They want to know your position on the quarter’s performance, as well as the assumptions that are embedded in the forecast. As you guide the board through the company’s past and present performance, be sure to build a clear path to a satisfying end: your projection for the company’s future.

Download the eBook, “Shark Tank Strategies for Better Board Reporting”

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