How many corporate finance reporting meetings have you sat through that practically put you to sleep? How many slides have been short essays, with charts that are meaningless, and no real conclusions are drawn? One of the quintessential challenges of corporate finance is combining the ability to find insights, but also being able to communicate findings in a relevant, impactful way. And this challenge is why data storytelling is making a comeback.
Stories have been the primary vehicle for communicating information since the beginning of communication itself – and the fact that we now have access to more data than ever doesn’t reduce the power of storytelling in reporting, analysis and insight. Historically, it’s been used to its fullest extent in sales and marketing, but to introduce storytelling into the financial communication process is somewhat revolutionary.
Our brains are hardwired to detect patterns in nature, including data. Stories are these patterns brought to life. And that means whether your team is building stories to report to the C-suite or board members, those executives are creating their own stories from the data to make sense of it all. Storytelling with the data is your way of controlling what patterns they see and compelling them with your point of view. And it’s a way of creating advocates for your recommendations before they ever have to change their budgets.
So what makes a good story in corporate finance?
Create some tension: Your audience is already on the edge of their seat. They want to understand the financial context of their business in the corporate landscape. Starting out with a dramatic conclusion like “Amazon’s revenues have reached new highs, but none of that money is truly theirs.”
Pivot your story around a central character: This is most often your business or the players you’re evaluating. Using a central character triggers empathy and keeps the attention focused on what happens next.
Take that central character though a journey: Every great story has a bit of Breaking Bad in one way or another – it’s the journey of a character (like Amazon) from who they were to who they are now. So we start out believing that Amazon has revenues on par with Google, but by the end of the story, after looking at incurred expenses, we realize that all is not what it seems. Amazon spends most of its revenue on outside costs, and is not nearly as profitable as you’d believe, despite its size. It started as a monolith, and finishes as a business like any other.
Build in a conclusion: Don’t just let your audience infer your conclusion from your story. Tell them what it all means at the end. And never, ever let the data speak for itself, because data tells a million different stories. You’re here to tell one.
Tell stories clearly and repeatedly: Not just once a quarter. Tell the stories at every opportunity, and make storytelling the de facto way you communicate with stakeholders.
It takes a unique corporate culture, with the right toolset, to integrate stories into your reporting structure. But you’ll notice improvements almost immediately. Storytelling gets at the heart of what your team is trying to tell you. It’s compelling, motivating, persuasive and informative. And if it reduces the amount of meeting time, miscommunication, or slides that are more dense than A Tale of Two Cities, then the return on investment will be worth it. I urge you to give storytelling a try at your next presentation. You’ll be surprised at how much more engagement you’ll receive.