80 accountants in an evening!

An evening with 80 other accountants exploring challenges around communicating and engaging non-financial people with financial information may not be everyone’s idea of fun but stick with me….

I am fast approaching the 30th anniversary of qualification as a chartered accountant and if I am typical of the group in terms of the amount of experience in the room then collectively there was around 2,400 years of experience that is an amazing resource!

After we’d broken the ice we set about identifying the challenges and there were a number of themes that emerged that I will explore in a series of articles.

Finance professionals have for many years worked with colleagues in different functions – and not all of these colleagues speak ‘finance’ or numerical language!

What we are usually seeking to achieve when we share financial data is to create knowledge that then affects behaviour. So let’s just unpick that a little…

What do I mean by knowledge? We each take in data and information and make sense and meaning from it based on our own experience and values. This is something that is completely unique for each person as no two people have exactly the same life experience.

Knowledge is the meaning we each make from data and information.

Our actions or behaviour come from the meaning we have made. So if you have ever wondered why people have taken action you didn’t expect after sharing a spreadsheet of data with them you might just begin to see why this can happen.

A key learning here is to get really clear about the story you want to tell and what action you are seeking from that then think about how best to present the information so that when people make meaning they are more likely to come to conclusions in line with your own.

Using visual language creates clarity and understanding

Communicating with others visually is highly effective in creating greater clarity and understanding.

One familiar aspect of visual language is using graphs in presenting financial information. This simple visual way of presenting data is often helpful in supporting the story that we see in the data. In getting the story we want to tell across more clearly to people there is a higher chance the meaning taken from it will be more consistent.

There are many other options in visual language and you absolutely do not need to become a great artist to use them either, trust me, I know this!

For example, when working with a European finance team who needed to improve their month and year-end close processes having implemented SAP I used a very simply drawn arrow on a large sheet of paper on the wall and a lot of post-it notes and we mapped the process together. This created much greater clarity and understanding of why things needed to be done when they did to meet reporting deadlines. It also allowed the team to identify opportunities to make improvements that made the process more efficient and effective.

Another approach that has worked well for me is to use a simple drawing to represent a metaphor.  So for example communicating a three-year revenue target using a picture of a mountain with the target at the top and camps along the way to illustrate annual progress. Really simple and very effective as everyone knew what we were aiming for.

The choice over what type of visual to use comes down to what outcome is sought, or to put it another way, what story do you want to tell and what actions or behaviour do you want as a result?

Creating clarity and understanding when working with a group is one factor in building trust and improving performance. Visual working is a great tool to use in achieving this and a great way to demonstrate the creativity and innovation that our roles as finance professionals require.