This week, some practical stuff. I wanted to share some tips I have learnt over the years, as a trainer and as an attendee. I hate that there is so much fear about sharing financial insight. It will also apply to Board reports and other finance communication too. After lockdown, I think I appreciate learning and sharing with others more. We may not always be doing this face to face in the future though. So the way we communicate and what we choose to share will of increasing importance.
1 — Tell the story
There is a real fear about finance, and finance sessions. Board members joke about dreading the management accounts. It is not perceived as an easy topic. So how should this be addressed? The best finance communicators steal the approach used in science documentaries. They often tell the story of how we got here. It is often the best objective way of describing the current state. Humans are hardwired, it is said, to learn from stories. I’d say there is some truth to that. Good finance communicators find a narrative arc or theme and weave the information around that structure. It is definitely worth spending time thinking about that narrative arc.
2 — Stay away from too many numbers
Too many finance folks get excited by all the information and insight they have worked hard to cultivate and can’t help but chuck it all in a large, indigestible stew of information. I’ve been that person. But don’t be that person. We forget that we have been trained to hold a lot of intricate financial ingredients in our heads simultaneously, and most people haven’t had that unusual experience. Not everyone has that nose for all those complex ingredients and scents
Most people just need headlines. It is worth sorting out what is important in terms of the numbers and putting the rest of it in an “other” box. Just be prepared to explain what’s in “other” if anyone asks. In training, I’ve found the rule of three really useful. Don’t give more than three sub-parts to a number. Or talk about more than three financial topics at once. Break them down into small courses if they all need sharing.
3 — Relationships not equations
It has taken me a while to realise this! But a great way of getting equations across is to describe them in terms of relationships. Without anthropomorphizing of course. But it can be useful to explain there are tensions and dependencies in a business model. Or talk about cycles and renewal. I’ve found that people can grasp some very complex interdependencies using the metaphor of relationships. As long as I have stayed away from making them do fractions!
It is hard to practice what I preach here (as my Twitter profile says, I am a recovering accountant after all). And yet, there are many people who do this amazingly already. I believe that finance folk must prioritise being useful to their peers and we need to talk about it more. What use is technical precision and beautiful insight if no one understands it? We have to think carefully about what points we get across from the perspective of the listener, and not what we enjoy sharing.
Book of the week — The Disordered Cosmos, by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein
The breadth of this book was really amazing and I was blown away by it. It is genuinely very original in its thought, profound and moving. It covered so many areas not normally the territory of science. I’ve read plenty of popular science books but I hadn’t heard many of the stories that were shared, for example, the difficult story of the telescopes in Hawai’i. I admire people who can write about and own their personal history in such a public way, it’s truly a humbling act. Physics is wonderful as a discipline but reflects the human frailties and biases of the people (well, white men tbh) in that sphere.
A quick quote from the book which I liked: “Physics is not the universe. Rather, it is one very human attempt to get at its innards”. I will leave you with the equivalent thought that finance is an human attempt to get at organisational innards too.