When I started studying finance and accounting in college, I joined the world of professionals who, after answering the inevitable “So what do you do?” question, are met with a groan and a glassy-eyed stare. At first, I tried to convince people that finance is actually about creative problem-solving. I quickly learned, however, that no one wants to get stuck in the corner talking to an accountant. Their ears might start bleeding, or worse—someone might mistake them for an accountant too. Eventually, I armed myself with apologetic responses, and became skilled at deflecting the conversation to common ground and finding more fun things to talk about.
Throughout my career, I’ve primarily worked with small- or medium-sized businesses. My role is to help entrepreneurs flourish. As I’ve matured in my profession, my attitude toward that dreaded question has shifted as well. Now my response includes telling a company’s story, or relaying an anecdote about how my creative problem-solving contributed to their success. These stories show why I love my job.
A Common Language
The entrepreneurs I’ve helped over the years didn’t start their companies because they wanted to put a business degree to work. Their companies were born from passion and expertise; they simply love what they’re creating or selling. I have often found myself alone in the numbers side of the business, responsible for leading a company-wide understanding of where we’re going and why. One of my main roles has been to guide financial planning and convey health to owners. As a result, I have continued to refine my ability to translate complex business ideas using straightforward, easy-to-understand language.
Everyone has experienced that professional who speaks in high-level specialized industry jargon. They pontificate, eagerly over-explaining with an air of superiority and hoping you just can’t follow their lofty train of thought. That person has missed the entire purpose of communication. Their condescension tells me that they are actually insecure, with a detrimental ego fueled by feeling like a more knowledgeable expert. They don’t have a desire to teach, communicate, or lead. Instead of finding common ground, they leave their listeners exhausted.
Making the Intimidating Accessible
Science, technology, and math fields have a bad reputation of not being approachable unless you’re a professional or specialist in one of these fields. This common stereotype carries over to presenting data, metrics, financial trends, and anything fact- or number-based. When presenting such content, the challenge isn’t only making it accessible; you first have to reach neutral ground and convince your audience that it can be accessible.
This is one of the reasons I deeply admire Neil Degrasse Tyson. He’s a master at conveying intricate ideas to the layman in a succinct and linear manner. He makes complex science accessible, and by some miracle makes me feel like I actually understand astrophysics.
Storytelling with Data
I’ve recently been inspired by Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, a book that eloquently explains how to present numbers in a visually effective and potent way. Its insights into data visualization and presentation are incredibly intuitive, designed to work with human nature and natural tendencies. When speaking, you might use a verbal crescendo to emphasize a point or a story’s climax. In a report or presentation, you can do the same thing visually, using simple strategies to effectively draw the audience’s attention and create visual exclamation points.
Step 1: Know the Story You’re Telling
The first step to creating an effective presentation of numbers is to determine what the data is saying. Then storyboard the message. Like a regular story, your data needs to show a clear, linear path to the conclusions you want your viewer to interpret.
Step 2: Think Like a Designer
In finance, we normally work with black and white systems, calculating and testing with tools like spreadsheets or accounting software. Creating a compelling presentation requires a mental shift. The creative part of the job comes into play, and you must allow yourself to think like a designer.
There is only one rule that must be followed: Do not use 3D charts or graphs! Cole reminds us to step back and declutter. It’s much easier to interpret data when there is less noise to look through. Gone are the days of rainbow-colored default graphs with all the features enabled. Eliminating borders, gridlines, and data markers and cleaning up axis labels does wonders for narrowing the viewer’s focus and ultimately, telling your story. A clean and simple message is much more effective.
Step 3: Use Text Strategically
Another great takeaway I gained from Storytelling with Data involves orientation and text. We’re taught to categorize at a young age and we naturally notice differences. By changing the shape, width, size, or hue of a visual element, or using text styles like bold, italics, or outlines on key facts or numbers, you create a visual shorthand. The difference draws the eye and the importance of that data is immediately obvious.
Keep Your Message Succinct
Holding your audience’s attention long enough to get your message across and let the data tell its story can be tough. It takes practice. Use these simple steps to eliminate distractions and highlight your message. Visualizations are an effective way to win over your audience and get right to the point. Take the time to clarify what story your data is telling, and then put your creativity to work. Compelling visualizations can lift the fog and take your audience beyond seeing data into truly understanding it.