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Crunching Numbers, Crafting Narratives: The Art of Persuasion in Accounting

When you ask Google, “what does an accountant do?” the response is as follows: “Typical accountant responsibilities include: Managing taxation matters, including individual or business tax returns. Reviewing the financial health of a business. Compiling accurate financial reports.” Google 2024

It sounds pretty task-focused doesn’t it?

 

Can you see what’s missing in that Google definition above?

Communicating the meaning of data is what’s missing! I don’t buy it that accountants are meant to simply present the raw data. I think business leaders and clients greatly appreciate informed analysis. Are you an accountant who does this well? If yes, yeah to you!  Unfortunately, in my line of work it’s not common. In fact, I have a number of accountants in private practice and in large corporate businesses as clients. They infuriate me when they say things to me like, “but Michelle, the data sells itself”, or, “it’s not part of my job description to interpret the data”, or “I don’t need to explain the data, I just have to show it to the people who care!”  OMG. Really?

 

And another thing that’s missing in the above definition of an accountant’s tasks is the need for refined communication skills to effectively present ideas and persuade whilst dealing with client or stakeholder emotions, objections and concerns. Surely this is of great importance to accountants wishing to genuinely change hearts and minds to meet (even exceed) their stakeholder needs?

 

Case Study

Picture this: a boardroom filled with accountants armed with financial reports and data-driven insights. While numbers are their forte, may I suggest that what’s essential in this moment is the ability to transform those numbers into compelling narratives. Successful accountants don’t just present the figures; they weave a persuasive story that captivates and enlightens stakeholders so that they can understand what’s going on, and then make sound decisions. Accountants need to know how to evoke curiosity, excitement, and understanding in their communication, making the financial narrative relatable and engaging – all without being over the top or weird!  

 

How do senior business leaders or clients make meaningful, robust business/financial decisions if raw data is all they receive?

In my Persuasive Presentation Skills Masterclass, I encourage accountants to go beyond the monotony of data and inject fascination into their presentations. To do this, is essential to understand there are three phases to a persuasive business presentation.

 

What are the three phases?

The three phases are: analysis, design, and delivery.  All 3 phases are essential (in that order) when presenting data.

 

Phase 1: Analysis

In the analysis phase you are working out the current state of your audience: what do they think and feel about you and the matter at hand? You are also determining your desired state: what do you want them to think and feel about the matter. What outcomes are you seeking?

 

Phase 2: Design

The design phase is where you structure your message and design your accompanying visual aids. In this phase it’s important to understand that persuasion is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour. In fact, the body of knowledge tells us that there are four main questions that must be answered if our stakeholder is to be persuaded by us. They need to know what’s in it for them to listen, they need to know what you’re talking about, they need to know how to apply the information and they need to have time to question your argument and thrash through alternatives. When it comes to our own ability to structure a winning argument most of us are good at responding to some of the questions, and not others.  At some stage in 2024 there’s merit in working out where you are strong and where you are weaker so you can build some strength in your weak areas to esnure you are consistently persuasive no matter who your stakeholders are. For more information on this please read my book: How to Persuade: the skills you need to get what you want (Wiley)

Stop! Your PowerPoint is Killing Me!

The design phase is also where you re-think your visual aids. Slides in financial presentations (no matter the industry) are still generally dreadful: hard to read, too busy, unclear.  Rows of small numbers in columns can be overwhelming to even the most numerate of us.

What else can accountants do to make visuals work?

– Think about either pairing your numbers with compelling visuals so you transform the data into a story that resonates.

– Perhaps you could build busy slides so that you direct your stakeholder’s attention to the important sections (as you choose).

– Maybe you could take a sledgehammer to the slide and bash out anything that is non-essential to your argument.

All of these choices equal clever, persuasive presenting!  I urge you to re-think your slides and ensure your audience remains engaged and enlightened as you speak.

 

Phase 3: Delivery.

The delivery phase is where you use your body, voice, personality, and stagecraft to bring your message alive. In this phase, please remember the power of authenticity in your communication. Sharing relevant and meaningful stories, anecdotes, and personal insights or case studies allows you to connect with your audience on a human level, fostering trust and credibility. In my world of persuasion, your unique examples of success and failure, winning and losing, problems overcome, triumphs achieved are the secret ingredient that transform your presentation from informative to truly impactful. Could you spend just 10 minutes a day thinking through all the work-related stories that are uniquely yours. Type them up and save them somewhere so you can pull them out when you need them.

 

Perfect preparation

And never underestimate the significance of preparation and rehearsal in persuasive communication. For accountants, this translates into meticulous preparation of financial presentations, mastering the art of delivering complex information with clarity, and rehearsing to enhance confidence. You need to feel to the audience that you know what you’re talking about. If this is the first time you’re seeing it on the slides and saying it out loud, you can’t possibly sound confident.  I could list 25 CFOs off the top of my head who regularly rehearse their monthly financial update tens of times (with their slides), so their delivery is seamless and impressive every time.  These people accelerate their careers because they are confident, clear and invaluable to their colleagues. 

 

And when rehearsing, remember to also brainstorm all the possible questions that your client or board might ask you – and then plan the answers – probably with slides – to back up your assertions! Don’t hope for the best on the day – that’s a road to nowhere!

 

I encourage you to view persuasive presentation skills as an integral part of your professional toolkit as an accountant. By adapting to diverse audiences, incorporating visuals, being authentic, and prioritising preparation, accountants can elevate their persuasive communication skills. Make the numbers comprehensible and truly compelling.

 

© Michelle Bowden 2024.  Michelle Bowden is an authority on presentation & persuasion in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), best-selling internationally published author (Wiley), and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media. www.michellebowden.com.au

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