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How to Make Numbers Seem ‘Sexy’

During the last presidential circus in 2012, I had written a blog post about Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic Convention.  A woman reader wrote back to me about how effectively Clinton used statistics to differentiate the parties. She wrote that “arithmetic and numbers never sounded so sexy.”

It got me thinking about all the CFOs, actuaries, investor relations and financial experts who could benefit from making numbers seem “sexy” in their presentations. You can imagine that investors’ conferences and financial roadshows may never be the same.

With this in mind, here are a few tips for CFOs, CEOs and others to bring number-heavy presentations to life, which is, after all, "sexy":

Tell your story. First, and most important, remember that numbers don’t stand-alone. They are meant to support a larger narrative. Never lose sight of your story.

For instance, at the highest level, your organization’s big message might be: we’ve had some challenges, but we’re moving in the right direction. Your job is to highlight and emphasize the numbers that support this argument.

Less is more. As an analytical person your instinct will be to give more and more data to support your case, but the truth is that the more numbers you present, the less effective and persuasive you will be. As an analytical leader, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of diminishing returns. In a world of information over-load and minute attention spans, less truly is more.

Hide numbers in a story.  As I reported last week in Why Great Leaders Tell Stories, Stanford research concluded that data included in a story is 22 times more likely to be remembered, than data on its own.  And you want your numbers to be remembered, don’t you?

As my friend and associate Kent Stroman likes to say, “Numbers numb, but stories store.” Stories are also more effective because they are about people and, it turns out, people find them more interesting, and sexy, than numbers. ;-)

Simplify.  In line with telling a story, you should pare your numbers presentation to a manageable set. Consider using a photo to illustrate your point or a slide with only one key number blown up large. Help them understand why this number is so important in the context of your organization’s story.

Think like a teacher.  By focusing on presenting fewer numbers in a more meaningful way, you develop opportunities to educate your audience on key concepts.

Consider taking the time to drill down on a meaningful idea.  For instance, you might ask, “Why are we pushing so hard to reduce expenses?”  Show the effects of each dollar saved in context, talk about what it means to your stakeholders and the impact it will have on those in the audience.

Your listeners always want to know “what’s in it for me?” You're much more likely to get support when people understand your rationale, the "why."

Show your personality.  I know you have a lot of interests, but your colleagues may not. Bring your personality to your presentation. Do you run marathons? Use a running analogy: you’ve heard the old sprint versus marathon metaphor.  Talk about race times and how your financials compare. “It’s our personal best!”

It’s going to feel weird for you the first couple of times you do this but I guarantee that you’ll engage your audiences and get positive feedback you’ve never gotten before.

One of my clients is a CFO who is wicked smart but also has a dry sense of humor that he seldom shared in presentations. I coached him to start slowly to reveal more of himself.

When he started opening up and sharing himself he got great feedback and improved his reputation inside and outside the company.  He told me he felt “liberated” by being himself on stage and in meetings.

There are also other benefits to becoming a better presenter of numbers. In addition to engaging your listeners more effectively, you will position yourself for greater success. In any organization today, the ability to communicate is the career differentiator.

Too many CFO’s and other “number crunchers” don’t get top jobs because they don’t inspire other people. They are literally crunched by their numbers.

The leaders of your organization are looking for people who not only have technical skills but also leadership and communications skills. If they have to choose between two “numbers people,” the one who can communicate effectively will win every time.

Also, I know it might be hard to believe, but you’ll start enjoying your presentations and feel more confident when you know you’re engaging people.

So go make those numbers “sexy.” Try it and see.

Photo Credit: NBC Deal or No Deal

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