insight magazine

The Dos and Don’ts of Communicating Company Financials

Here’s how to hone the dollars and cents of your delivery. By BRIDGET MCCREA | Winter 2018


As the keepers of financial data, accounting and finance pros have a significant impact on corporate health and people’s perceptions.

"Whether you’re in public accounting, the CFO of a nonprofit, or a controller in a midsized company, your job is to present financial information to the people who need it,” says Paul Preziotti, CPA, principal at Johnson Lambert LLP in Vienna, Va.

Indeed, no matter what your job title is or what your job duties are, as an accounting and finance professional you’re going to be called upon to share your organization’s financial data with shareholders, board members, company executives, employees, the press, and other stakeholders. And that information not only has to be accurate, but it also has to be delivered in a way that’s interesting, relevant, and targeted to your audience. Achieving this balance isn’t always easy; flub it up and you can see your share price tumble, but deliver a report that’s clear, concise, and enthusiastic and you’re likely to gain the attention and respect of everyone listening.

So, here are some dos and don’ts of financial public speaking to help ensure that your next presentation or quarterly earnings call is a success:

Do understand your audience. In other words, don’t assume everyone is an accountant. “When presenting financials, the most critical thing accounting and finance professionals forget is that most of the people they’re presenting to aren’t accountants,” Preziotti points out.

You need to know what and whom you’re dealing with before you step into the meeting or conference room. If you’re communicating the company’s financials to its board of directors, you can be reasonably sure they’re up to speed on terminology and what’s been going on over the last three months. However, if you’re speaking on an earnings call, your audience will be much wider with varying levels of experience. And, if you’re working for a nonprofit, then you may be asked to talk to completely different non-financial types of committees and groups altogether.

“You really have to gauge the financial comprehension of the audience,” says Jeramy Kaiman, vice president at Parker Lynch in Chicago. “You may need to do more ‘educating’ or boiling down of key concepts in certain cases.”

Even a common acronym to you, like EBITDA, may not be immediately familiar to your audience. “Keep this in mind and tailor your presentation to that particular audience,” Preziotti says. “The point is to make the information relevant and useful.”

Don’t overwhelm users with materials. “Send me a 30-page packet ahead of your presentation and the chances of me opening it are slim to none,” Preziotti says. Instead, send out a concise, tightly-written email or press release to capture your audience’s attention and get them interested in what’s to come. “Hit on everything you need to cover, but put it in a quick, digestible format,” he advises.

Do use “dashboards” to convey what your audience cares about. “We have 10 months of operating reserves.” “Here’s how the membership has grown quarter-over-quarter.” Whatever the hot-button items may be, “using a dashboard in conjunction with the financial statements can go a long way,” Preziotti says, suggesting you always using appropriately colored charts and symbols to illustrate the numbers behind hot-button issues for your audience.

Don’t start out on a negative note. Financial information can’t always be rosy, but it’s important to find and focus on the positives in the beginning of your presentation.

“You don’t want to start the meeting out on a somber note,” Preziotti says, stressing the first few sentences that come out of your mouth set the tone for the entire production. “It could be as simple as pointing out where the organization is with its reserves and how far it’s come, or how that new line of business is becoming profitable. These early points can really help you set the right tone and engage your audience.”

Do tell an interesting story. You’ll only put your audience to sleep if you start reciting numbers and projections without making that information useful for the people you’re talking to. Instead, come up with an interesting storyline that will engage the audience and give them some context (and not put them to sleep). Develop opening remarks that are relatable in some way, speak in a conversational tone (versus dictating to your audience), and weave interesting anecdotes into your verbal presentation.

Don’t avoid the tough questions. Ideally, you want to inspire confidence in your delivery and create a collaborative atmosphere where audience members aren’t afraid to ask questions. Unfortunately, it can be hard to prepare for every single question that might come your way.

Kaiman suggests focusing on the core issues at hand, then brainstorming a laundry list of potential queries in advance. If, for example, sales are down for the quarter, you’ll want to be able to explain why and what’s being done to offset the losses. In some cases, there may be a very logical explanation for the setback.

“The whole purpose of a board meeting or earnings call is for people to be able to ask the tough questions,” Kaiman says. “So, be ready for them.”

Do understand this is an important part of your job. Whether you’re a CFO or a staff accountant, articulating financials to the people who need them is part of your job. Some of this may take place via written word (corporate reports, press releases, emails, etc.), but you’ll also have to do some public speaking. You can set yourself up for success by preparing in advance, practicing your delivery, and coming up with a way to parlay the information in an interesting way.

Don’t make final conclusions for them (stick to the facts). In many cases, a CFO or controller will go into a presentation ready to sway his or her audience to see things a certain way. “Too many times, accounting and finance leaders go into events with too much of a final conclusion in mind when in reality they should just be conveying the facts and then letting attendees come to their own conclusions,” Kaiman says. “You can certainly make a recommendation to the board, for instance, but ultimately it is that board’s job to come to its own conclusions.”

Do operate with a high level of transparency. Last, but certainly not least, use this time to be as transparent as possible about the organization and its financial health. “When you’re upfront and transparent, things go well,” Kaiman says. “When you aren’t, they don’t.”

For example, ignoring or deflecting questions from the audience basically says, “We have something to hide.” This could put your organization (and your role) in a negative light, knowing that the uninformed audience will quickly lose faith in the presentation — and possibly the organization itself.

“Focus on delivering very accurate, concise information,” Kaiman says, “and then answering questions as openly and honestly as possible.”

While public speaking may not be the forte of most accounting and finance professionals, how a company’s financials are communicated can have a lasting impact on the organization. Practicing these dos and don’ts of communicating financials will ensure your audience is getting all the dollars and cents of your delivery.

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