The Art of a Compelling Financial Narrative

November 21, 2023 Mimi Torrington

business executive giving a presentation on financial narrative in front of an audience

Whether it's sharing ideas, persuading stakeholders, or driving action, clear and engaging communication is crucial. Storytelling is the tool financial professionals need to master to enhance their communication. To better explore the power of a good financial narrative, its impact on driving action, and how it can improve communication in the financial industry, we speak to Soufyan Hamid.

Soufyan is an experienced FP&A expert based in Belgium who founded SouFBP to offer specialized support to businesses looking for temporary or independent financial management solutions. Before that, he held the roles of Finance Business Partner at Proximus and Manager at Deloitte Belgium.

Show/Hide Transcript

Megan - 00:00:18: Today, my guest is Soufyan Hamid. With more than 15 years of corporate experience, Soufyan is based in Brussels and is a recognized expert specializing in improving the presentation skills of FP&A teams located worldwide through his online bootcamps and training. After holding executive positions with firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte, He founded SouFBP, His global consulting firms helps finance professionals located anywhere master the delivery of their presentations by improving their preparation, messaging, and visuals. Soufyan's training fills the void in finance training that is often missed for most professionals and enables them to excel through his proprietary method called The Financial Storytelling Program. To date, his program is followed by more than 150 plus finance professionals worldwide, and he is a top storytelling voice on LinkedIn with nearly 55,000 followers. Soufyan, thank you very much for being my guest on today's episode of CFO Weekly.

Soufyan - 00:01:53: Hi, Megan. I'm glad to be here.

Megan - 00:01:55: Yeah, today we're going to be talking about the importance of financial storytelling and data visualization and how we can make presentations more engaging and relevant to our audience. And we've got an awful lot to learn from you. So let's get started.

Soufyan - 00:02:09: Yeah, I'm ready.

Megan - 00:02:11: All right. So thinking back on your path, what are the pivotal moments which shaped your career and created your interest in financial storytelling?

Soufyan - 00:02:21: That all started something like seven years ago, I think. Before that, I was a consultant, an auditor in big four companies. So I was really focused on everything that was related to technical aspect of our work, making dashboards, working on Excel, creating visual basic macros. So really focused on everything that was technical. And I survived so far until I joined a company as a finance business partner. Quickly, I realized that was not working as I would have loved to. I didn't really understand why this was the case. I didn't have the support of the business that I thought I deserved because I was working really hard. And until the day I got from the VP of Finance. The feedback in the monthly result presentation that we had to deliver each month, that he told me in those exact same words, Soufyan, you're an expert and you're talking to people like they were the same expert as yourself. But they are not experts in finance. They are experts in other fields. So you have to transform your finance reports into a story they will find familiar. That will be relatable for them. And at that moment, I quickly understood that I needed to do something about my communication, how I transmitted the information I got from my analysis to make sure that people in front of me, so the audience or my business partners, could do something about it. Because basically, if they don't do something about it, then it remains a work that's simply hidden in an Excel file. And that was not my goal at least. And so at that moment, I decided to train really intensively on delivering presentations. I trained and I joined the Toastmasters. I delivered sort of TEDx talk inside my company. And I was really happy about the results, but I was a bit frustrated as well because there was nothing, no training at all regarding storytelling for finance. There was no specific training that could help us change the specific aspects of finance towards a story that relates to the business. So what I did was that I took all the learnings that I got from the different sources and tried to adapt it to the world of finance. And this is why today I developed my own methodology to help finance professionals, especially those people working in FP&A and CFOs and finance directors, improve their storytelling and deliver engaging presentation to make sure that the financial insights you bring in a presentation could trigger first an emotion and then an action. And that was my goal.

Megan - 00:05:34: So many of us are terrified of presenting publicly. So something like a TED Talk or Toastmasters, sounds like something we just absolutely would not want to do. What would you say to the people out there who are listening who, I mean, I think public speaking is ranked up there with death as far as our fear. So what would you say to those people as to how to get over that fear?

Soufyan - 00:06:02: Yeah, that's absolutely true. When I speak to my clients or to the training participants, this is one of the biggest fears, public speaking. And there's no secret. It goes through practicing. We do not all have the same starting points. Some people feel more at ease speaking in public than others. But definitely practicing will make it not perfect, but at least more than acceptable. Because the goal is not that we transform ourselves into Simon Sinek or any other great public speaker. We are delivering finance presentations. So the goal is really to make sure that the insights we want to bring are delivered and are acted upon. But practicing will make it easier for you. And it doesn't really matter whether you are an extrovert or an introvert. Always. All people have to practice. So try to rehearse before in front of other people or try to rehearse even in front of a camera and observe yourself. You will be the most judgmental listener with your own self. And after practicing, you will start to see the development in public speaking. You will start to notice your filler words, your bad habits. And that's the only way that after some month, you will clearly see an improvement in that area.

Megan - 00:07:39: That's great advice. So what does financial storytelling involve and why is it important for every CFO and really every finance professional?

Soufyan - 00:07:49: Well, basically finance storytelling, how I summarize it is that it's transforming back the business reality into a business reality after it has gone through the accounting process. So our starting point in finance is to analyze the financial information we have in our ERP systems or in EPM systems. But the goal is to make sure to find back business context behind those figures. And so the best tip I can give is to never work only based on financial reports. Always try to mix it with business drivers because those business drivers will help you determine the angle of the discussion you will have with your business partners to find the business context of the information. The story will only start as soon as you have the business context behind the figures. And so this is important for CFOs because in the past, the finance function was a back office department. We had a compliance role and we had to deliver our reports for the auditors, for the annual accounts. But now people expect from finance to have information so that they can pilot their business. But the thing is, nobody will consider it as a reality as long as they are not convinced. So storytelling will help them, will help CFOs, finance directors or people working in FP&A to convince their business partners about what's happening, why it happened and what can we do about it. And so in that case, the importance of storytelling will reside in how relatable the financial information is for the people listening to it.

Megan - 00:09:52: And what are some necessary skills for being a good financial storyteller?

Soufyan - 00:09:57: Well, I see one that often lacks in finance professionals, and that would be what I call the helicopter view. Really often people dive really deep into the analysis will remain at the level of the details. And you see that especially when people have to explain a variance. Let's say you have a variance of 100K between the actual and the budget. Most finance professionals I've observed will try to put as much explanation as possible to come close to the 100K, even if two business events will explain 80K of these 100K. And the rest, there will maybe be 20 events that are not relevant and that will compose the remaining 20K. They will focus on everything and make it barely relatable for them. If you take the helicopter view, you will take some distance and realize that the two most important events will be enough so that people can keep on working. That's the biggest point. The other point that I think the other skill that I think is important is the structure. People are not used to deliver a story in a structure that is different from the structure of the P&L, for example. Mostly we speak of the P&L towards non-finance audiences, and we use the P&L structure, revenue and then cost of sales and then operating expenses. You arrive slightly to the EBITDA, and then you speak about depreciation, et cetera, until coming to the net profit. By using this structure, you remain in the financial world. But if you use a storytelling structure, you will make sure that people relate to how you speak and about what you speak. So that in the case of the financial storytelling, you will reverse the narrative towards a business story. By using financial data. So those two points, those two skills are, according to me, the most important. Of course, you have the rest like public speaking, but I think that with training, anybody can get that. But the first skills people have to realize they need to train are those two, helicopter view and structure view.

Megan - 00:12:37: And how can we make our presentations more engaging and still explain complex financial concepts?

Soufyan - 00:12:44: Well, the first step for me would be about language and the language in two sides. First, try not to use financial jargon when you speak to an audience. I don't say that you need to treat the audience like babies by using really simple words. Most of the time, they are business people and they know complex words. But so many times I've heard people speaking about actuals. IFRS rules, et cetera, things that do not say anything to people not working in finance. So the first side would be to use normal language. And the second side would be also related to language, but more in how you speak, how you use a narrative. And I call it reversing the narrative. Most of the time when you hear finance people speaking, that would be speaking of revenues are below budget because XYZ for example. My point is to reverse it, by first speaking of what happened in the real life, and then it led to a budget being, it led to the revenues being below budget. So in that case, it would be XYZ took place, leading to revenues being below budget. So reversing the narrative by speaking first of the reality, and then speaking of finance makes it really more engaging because people who do not work in finance will directly jump on what you say and directly find back their business reality into your own narrative.

Megan - 00:14:36: And you touched on this when you said that finance used to be a back office function. But talk to us a little bit about how storytelling and presentations in finance have changed throughout the years. Let's say the last decade or two.

Soufyan - 00:14:52: That's an interesting question because it has changed over the years and it will continue to change because this is something that I see more and more. And it takes more and more place, especially when you hear software companies, tool companies selling FP&A tools, for example, who always tell their clients that they have storytelling features in their tools, but they are barely data visualization tools. And for me, this goes beyond data visualization. And I think that this trend has started with the many financial crises we've observed in the last 10 to 15 years since the banking crisis, since the latest financial crisis we observed after COVID, etc. Now, financial information and financial results has become a concern for the whole company. When I started my career, I often realized that people were not really interested in how Their work had an influence on the P&L and on the net results of the company. But I've observed a change in the last years when people are more concerned and also evaluated on the financial results of their business units or their departments. So they have more and more questions. And since they have more and more questions, they expect more and more answers. But since I said in the beginning that answers in the past were often too complex to make it actionable for them, they insisted. And CEOs insisted to have a finance team that's business oriented. And the storytelling mindset came together with the need of having finance business partners in companies. So this trend is parallel to finance business partnering becoming an important team in companies.

Megan - 00:16:58: And oftentimes we're presenting something to persuade our audience. So can you outline how we can make our presentations so that they're strong and persuasive in their arguments?

Soufyan - 00:17:12: Yeah. It's really important indeed, because people don't believe you just because you say it. The shield of having the financial data that's supposed to be the single source of truth is not enough to make people believe you and be convinced about what you say. So in that case, what I often say is that each of your arguments, each of your supporting arguments should at least follow the three what structure. The three what structure is what I use to make sure that the information you bring can become an insight. And this insight has to respect three what. The first is the what simply explain what happened and why it happened. So here you will have the contextual information, the business information. The so what is the implication on the people who will listen to you and who will attend your presentation. So if what you bring does not have an impact on them, it's not an insight for them. It will be an insight for someone else, but not the people in the audience. So try to focus on what the impact will be for them. And in finance, it's often easy because most of the time the financial results will be the trigger for them to have a bonus. So if the financial results are bad, well, they won't have a bonus. So the impact is pretty easy to find. And then the next what will be the now what. And it's really important because what you bring as an insight has to be actionable or we can do something to compensate at least this, the insight that you brought. So by respecting those three what you will make sure that the audience will be concerned because they will have an emotional impact on their so what and they will have a call to action in the now what. So I think that if you ask yourself these three questions for each insight you bring, you will have a persuasive argument.

Megan - 00:19:15: And we've all heard the term, a picture is worth a thousand words. So let's talk about data visualization. And what are your tips for turning data into relevant visual aids in a presentation?

Soufyan - 00:19:29: Well, before giving tips on data visualization, because I love them and I really like to work with data visualization, but I think although it's super important today, a lot of people tend to focus more on the visual than on the structure and the delivery of the message. And I often say that you can present something without visuals, but the visuals won't present themselves. So before even thinking about visuals, really focus on the structure, on the content of what you will say. And then the visuals, the tip will be to be as simple as possible. I use like five to seven charts maximum in finance, waterfall charts being the most important one in FP&A. And you have to declutter. So retrieve all unnecessary information in the charts to make sure people focus on the data points you want to focus. Everything that's related to access, everything that's related to labels. Be sure to only put what you need to deliver the message and not just a basic standard visualization you have in your dashboard that you copy paste in a slide, for example.Megan - 00:20:48:

Megan - : And are there any tools that you particularly like for visualization? Any dashboards or tools to bring information together?

Soufyan - 00:20:56: Yeah, to be honest, I think that we can do a lot already with Excel. Of course, you have many visualization tools like Power BI or basically any BI tool today. What I really like with Excel is that In terms of storytelling, you can easily adapt them one by one. So if you have a BI tool, it's pretty difficult to, for example, gray out all the bars except one. And in that case, I prefer the flexibility of Excel to allow yourself to adapt the graph to the story you want to tell. So that's what I do often with my trainees. It's to tell them how they can use simple tools they all have, PowerPoint, Excel, and already reach more than acceptable level. Of course, if you have the opportunity to have a strong BI tool, you can work on them. Excel for me is more than enough.

Megan - 00:22:00: And when you're working with CFOs, what do you find that they struggle most with when presenting narratives and finance? Yes.

Soufyan - 00:22:08: Most of the time, CFOs I've known are people who had the opportunity to work in other functions of the company. So they are pretty strong in reversing the narrative, as I presented earlier. So they can put themselves in the business shoes and present the financial figures and financial results without having to speak finance. But of course, it's not the case for everyone. So the biggest struggle for me would be to go out of the compliance mission of finance and to go out of the simple structure of the P&L, of the cash flow statement or of the balance sheet and transform the way they speak into something that's relatable for the non-finance people. And for that, there's no other way than becoming a finance business partner. You have to know what happened to make. Sure to talk about it and the consequence would be in the financial results. So this is the biggest struggle. The other biggest struggle CFOs have is when they get the information from their teams. And here it's not really how they deliver the presentation themselves, but more how the storytelling mindset is cascaded. Because if the storytelling mindset is only at the level of the CFO, the CFO will have challenges at each time they need to. They need to present financial results to the board or to the ExCo. But if the storytelling mindset is cascaded to every finance professional in the company, well, first, at each level of the company, the business partners will have the opportunity to see the financial results in another way than by simple reports. And it will be much easier for the CFO to build the total story of the company by having multiple stories from their staff.

Megan - 00:24:14: And what role does technology and technology even AI play today in financial storytelling?

Soufyan - 00:24:23: Well, it's good news, actually, to have AI and technology, and not in the sense that AI can build a story for yourself. For the moment, I think it's still too early, but it will help you be efficient in the tasks you are not really needed as a finance business partner. You can use technology to identify patterns. You can detect outliers or trends. And by having those directly on your plate, you can make time to take this role of finance business partner to go and get the contextual information. For the moment, it's still too soon to use the technology to determine what the business context of the financial and even the business drivers is. So in that case, technology will help us making time to go and get the contextual information. We can go out of our offices and discuss with the people who know what happened in the business and how to solve it. And to gather all this information, it still needs a human presence, a human skill that AI simply does not have yet. So the time will be free, thanks to the technology.

Megan - 00:25:45: And in finance, we're often presenting to many different stakeholders. So talk to us about the importance of crafting your message based on your audience and making sure that you're connecting with who it is that you're presenting to.

Soufyan - 00:26:02: Yeah, that's really important because the analysis as such will not really change, but it's more first about the content. What will you tell? You remember when I talked about the three what's, it has to matter to them. If it doesn't, that means that the insight is not important to them. And so. Maybe the whole point of your presentation does not really make sense. So knowing your audience will matter in terms of content. And this can be either at the level of the detail that you have to share. It will be a technical presentation or a high level presentation. Also, the format will many people feel more at ease having a full report with all the details. Some will prefer mail. Some others will prefer slides with visuals. Others will even prefer a discussion without any formal report. So knowing your audience will help you determine what the best format will be. And the last point, which is in my opinion, one of the most important is understanding. According to the audience and mostly about the level of hierarchy you have in a company, you will have a different storytelling approach for people, busy people like executives or directors. You will rather use an inductive approach in which you tell everything that's important from the start and then detail your analysis by giving supporting evidence. While for experts, people who will rather be convinced by supporting evidence, you will first show the results of your analysis before sharing the conclusion and what you would recommend. So the place of the audience in the company will orientate the way you deliver your story. And this is why knowing your audience is key, because it will completely change the way you approach the storytelling structure.

Megan - 00:28:17: And can you share your experience on how the use of financial storytelling has impacted financial planning, strategy, and overall financial performance? In other words, what's the impact? What's in it for a good storyteller and what's in it for a company who supports good storytellers?

Soufyan - 00:28:36: Well, I can share with you an experience I've had last year when I took an assignment working in a company I didn't know. And before when the budget was presented, the goal of the meeting was to validate every single assumption. And so I took the latest PowerPoint and I thought it was completely crazy. The CFO told me it took two days to validate all the assumptions because the ex-co was kind of detail-oriented. So I took a shot and wanted to try with the storytelling method. So instead of sharing all the details, I shared the results. I shared the what, the so what, and the now what. And it worked. It worked. And the validation of the budget only took a half day this year. So I think that storytelling had a lot of impact on it because we did not go into every single detail to validate. Everything we validated, the budget story. And this is what the most important is in FP&A. Is the budget really about the accuracy of every single line or is the budget simply the translation of the strategy of the company in a plan, in a more detailed plan. And in that case, I got the proof that it was more related to validating how we translated the strategy of the company into a budget. And the key was that finally the variances versus the budget the year after were not that big. They were not that big. So we spent, we saved a day and a half from the ExCo, generally busy. And expensive people. And finally to get the same type of results on the budget. So plus they were satisfied about how it was presented. So I think that in that case, it was a real good experience on how storytelling can have an impact on the company.

Megan - 00:30:46: Yeah, absolutely. That's an amazing result. So what do you wish that people knew more about when it comes to creating engaging financial presentations?

Soufyan - 00:30:57: Well, my biggest wish would be that there would be some sort of blocking factor on PowerPoint before people could build their slides. I simply wish that people would start first with their story and would start first with having the main message they want to share with the audience before touching their slides. The thing is, generally in finance, the monthly results or even the budget is built based upon their slides. And the slides are always the same. We just refresh the tables. We just refresh the graphs. And then we decide on how we will deliver it, which makes that the slides are the same old each month. And the delivery is the same old. And it's not engaging to have that. While if you reverse it and first build the story before the slides, you will soon realize that a classic slide deck is, it will not do the trick that it will not be aligned to how you share your story and the structure of your story. So you will certainly work your slides to represent better what you want to share. And so your slides will change, your story will change, and people will find that new is always better. And when it's new, they will certainly be more focused and be more attentive during the presentation.

Megan - 00:32:30: And last question, and I'm not going to ask you what's keeping you up at night, but I'm curious. You talk about a 10-20-30 rule. Can you give us some detail as to what you mean by that?

Soufyan - 00:32:42: It's a concept that I've taken from a guy, Kawasaki, who is a marketing guru. It's more a concept that's used in pitching, but I found the lessons quite interesting. The 10-20-30 rule is simply a rule that will help you limit the quantity of everything that you share. The 10 is for 10 slides, meaning that you have to count on a maximum of 10 slides. Obviously, for us in finance, it can be more, it can be less. It doesn't really matter. The rule there is that you have to think in less is more. And the same goes, for the 20, which is 20 minutes, often we have larger slots, but if you count on 20 minutes speaking, you will certainly leave room for questions, answers, comments, discussions. And that's the biggest goal I want to share with the audience is that when you have a presentation in a business settings like finance, it's more, it should turn into a discussion. It should lead. So in that case, counting on less speaking time and more discussion time is definitely the aim. And the 30 is simply the size of the text in your slides. If you use a 30 size font, that means you cannot write too much on your slides. And if you cannot write too much, that means that people won't read your slides and will listen to you. So all these together can be simplified with less is more. If you put less slides with less text and less speaking time, You will make sure that you still remain engaging during your presentation and that you will remain the point of focus during the presentation.

Megan - 00:34:46: That's great advice, Soufyan. And thank you so much for being my guest today.

Soufyan - 00:34:50: That was a pleasure for me. Thank you for inviting me.

Megan - 00:34:54: Yeah, absolutely. I really enjoyed speaking with you and thanks for finding the time to be here with us today. For our listeners who'd like to learn more, where can they go?

Soufyan - 00:35:03: Well, I'm super present on LinkedIn, so definitely you can find me there. And I try to answer to every comment, every mail. So don't hesitate to contact me and I'll be there.

Megan - 00:35:17: Well, thank you. Thank you for that information. And to everyone listening, have a wonderful day ahead.

Soufyan - 00:35:23: Thank you.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • The power of a good financial narrative

  • Why financial professionals need to nail storytelling

  • What skills do you need to be a good financial storyteller

  • How to transform financial reality into great stories

  • Designing engaging financial presentations

Key Takeaways:

Transforming Data into Business Narratives

Financial storytelling enables CFOs and finance professionals to transform raw financial data into meaningful business narratives. To achieve this, you must focus on contextualizing financial data by mixing financial reports with business drivers, revealing the business context behind the figures.

Also, it's essential to adopt a "helicopter view" by highlighting key factors that explain frictions in financial data rather than getting stuck in minor details. Additionally, CFOs must shift from traditional financial reporting formats to a narrative structure that resonates with non-finance audiences.

transforming data into a financial narrative Quote

“Storytelling will help CFOs, finance directors, or people working in FP&A to convince their business partners about what's happening, why it happened, and what can we do about it.”

Mastering Financial Narrative and Presentations

If you want to make your financial presentations more engaging, follow these steps:

Avoid complex jargon: Use straightforward language that's clear to all audience members, including those not familiar with finance.

Use a reversed narrative technique: Start with real-world events or cases that the audience can easily relate to. Then, explain how these events impact financial outcomes.

Soufyan Hamid founder of SouFBP Quote

“Reversing the narrative by speaking first of reality and then speaking of finance makes it more engaging because people who do not work in finance will directly jump on what you say and directly find back their business reality into your own narrative.”

The "Three What" Strategy in a Compelling Financial Narrative

Financial storytelling has evolved significantly over the last 10 to 15 years, mainly driven by financial crises and the growing company-wide interest in financial results. This shift has led to a demand for finance teams to be more business-oriented and to adopt storytelling skills in their presentations.

Delivering a persuasive financial presentation goes down to the "Three What" model for each argument: explain "what" happened and why, discuss "so what" are the implications for the audience, and conclude with "now what" actionable steps can be taken.

Quote financial storytelling strategy

“The storytelling mindset came together with the need to have finance business partners in companies. So, this trend is parallel to finance business partnering becoming an important team in companies.”

Data Visualizations in Presentations

Data visualization is an essential part of financial presentations. However, when creating a presentation, focus on structuring your message before incorporating visuals. Keep them simple, and limit the use of charts to around five, with a preference for types like waterfall in FP&A. When creating impactful visuals, you can use Excel as it allows for easy changes of graphs to align with your story.

Quote visualizations in financial presentations

“Although it's super important today, a lot of people tend to focus more on the visual than on the structure and the delivery of the message. And I often say that you can present something without visuals, but the visuals won't present themselves. So before even thinking about visuals, focus on the structure, on the content of what you will say.”

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