“Believe me, there is nothing more demoralising for the finance professional who cannot get engagement from the audience after how hard they have worked”
The Grid: With data visualisation being a growing area of data analytics, there is a shift in focus towards creating visual stories around financials for corporate decision-making. Can you elaborate on that for us?
Danielle: There has definitely been a big focus shift onto visualisation of data for sure. Having said that, number crunching is still just as important as ever.
As analysts, we know that nothing is more important than the accuracy but ‘non-finance’ management professionals increasingly want to see visuals. It’s all about how the numbers are communicated.
The way we consume information is just so different now.
The Grid: It’s a combination of competing for attention in less time and having to engage more succinctly whilst keeping abreast of faster decision making too.
Danielle: Yes, being able to visualise your message gets you so much more attention. Just like when you post something on social media with an image or video, you’re more likely to get follower engagement. The same goes for reports when we communicate them to others. Providing numbers and text simply doesn’t cut it anymore. There are so many data visualisation tools available (including plain Excel of course!) to make our reports interesting, engaging and, most importantly, useful to the person reading them.
The Grid: Traditionally, haven’t number-crunching and designing visuals been thought of as somewhat opposing skill sets?
Danielle: As analytical people, we are usually good at what we do but have little idea on how to make things look good, I’m afraid to say.
People either love or hate Excel. In most cases, their eyes will glaze over as soon as they see the grid lines. Once you’ve finished with your spreadsheet, it only takes a few minutes to remove the grid lines in the background or remove the tabs. Make your presentation look like something that hasn’t come out of Excel. Put it into a PDF or PowerPoint at least!
Believe me, there is nothing more demoralising for the finance professional who cannot get engagement from the audience after how hard they have worked.
The Grid: How do you recommend incorporating visuals so that they add maximum impact to the story of the data?
Danielle: First of all, take your time with it. We tend to spend days, weeks or even months on a model or piece of analysis and then rush through the visuals elements.
Simple things like making sure your charts are neatly lined up, using relevant and interesting visuals and using colours which are synonymous with the logo of your company can make a huge difference to your reports’ legibility and impact.
After determining which data sets to visualise, we really need to think about the optimal format to display that data whether it be bar, pie or line charts etc. Test different strategies such as where to display data labels or the distance between bars. Think of your presentation as a strategic communication exercise.
Make sure your graphs show over-arching trends and not incremental changes if too detailed for the discussion at hand.
You may be tempted to go all out but it’s best to stay away from 3-D design and not let the visuals obscure the message in the data.
The Grid: What other techniques are powerful in engaging a senior audience of ‘non-finance’ management professionals, say, at a board meeting, for instance?
Danielle: Make it digestible to them and easily understood. Data visualisation tools not only help amplify your message and can help you simplify it and weave in a good story too.
Focus on telling that story and not using your time presenting to a senior audience as a ‘data dump’. We are all wired evolutionally to make sense of visuals more easily than text, so make it easy on your audience by giving them a visual story, not a data dump. Let them spend their time making decisions based on your message, not trying to interpret what on earth you’re trying to say.
Storytelling gives the numbers a relatable framework; where we came from, where we are and where we are going. That’s much more interesting than, ‘here are the numbers this month’.
Take the audience through a journey which generates lively discussion for better decision making!
This is an extract from an interview with Danielle Stein Fairhurst, Principal Financial Modeller, Plum Solutions.
Plum Solutions training courses in financial modelling, budgeting and analysis are aimed at business professionals seeking to improve their analytical skill set using Microsoft Excel.
Interview by May Khizam, Founder & Chief Strategist, The Grid Media Ltd
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