How to improve your board reporting in 3 easy steps

How to improve your board reporting in 3 easy steps

Many finance teams consider board reports the most challenging type of report that they put together. And, in many ways, it’s because board members want so much more than numbers, such as nonfinancial information and customized analysis.

That’s doubly true during a pandemic.

Standard slide templates and data charts may satisfy most board members. But to establish the finance team as a strategic partner in driving the business forward during this challenging time—consider these presentation tips:

Step #1: Start with why, not what

Data is the default starting place for most finance teams: What numbers do we have and how can they be best presented? But before diving into the nitty-gritty numbers, step back and imagine the board’s perspective. Why are they coming to this meeting? Maybe there are strategic decisions that need to be made or business opportunities to consider. Maybe they’re eager to parse long-term trends or to right the ship when things slide off course. When the team approaches the data with the board’s perspective in mind, the presentation is both more focused and more relevant.

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Consider, for instance, how the team might present P&L data. Some of the board’s questions will likely be very straightforward: Are revenues on track? Did we close the second quarter strong as planned? Are expenses under control? Answering those questions can be accomplished with a simple yes or no—and if the answer is yes, there’s no need to spend 10 slides or 20 minutes walking through every data point. Instead, brainstorm what actions the board might consider based on these simple questions and pony up relevant data to help them take action. If we missed our Q2 numbers, how should we adjust our summer forecast? If expenses aren’t well controlled, what items need to be attended to? The more the finance team can align itself with the board’s perspective, the faster and better those strategic decisions can be made.

Step #2: Be a storyteller

No, we don’t mean spinning a yarn or sharing personal anecdotes during the presentation. But if your slides are crammed only with dry data, you’re doing the board a disservice. Either the meeting devolves into a free-for-all of speculation, or board members leave scratching their heads about what the data actually means.

A savvy presenter highlights the logic and narrative of why one number rose higher than expected and another moved slowly. Did that sales slump correspond with a competitor entering a market the company had previously dominated? Did a regulatory shift impact revenue last quarter? Has a construction delay meant lower headcount and payroll than expected?

Context is also king when it comes to narrative presentations. A 3% sales bump is more significant if one knows whether past growth has hovered closer to 1% or 30% and how that growth rate compares to industry competitors. In a CFO Indicator Report, nearly 60% of CFOs reported that their boards ask how company performance stacks up against benchmark companies. When you can logically illustrate how the business environment is impacting performance and how this compares with competitors, you’re both saving time and providing value to the board. And that can make you a more influential member of those meetings.

Step #3: Ramp up credibility

One of the quickest ways to kill your credibility in front of the board is to have a data error in the presentation. When the same data point is different on two different slides, it kick-starts a conversation about data veracity and sourcing, and it can seem like the insights and analysis that follow are built on a shaky foundation. Using a presentation tool that draws from a single source of up-to-date data dramatically increases the credibility and trust the finance team has with the audience.

But beyond presentation content, consider its design. It’s easy to think of design as an afterthought or flourish, but streamlined, uncluttered slides can actually bolster credibility. In one classic study that pitted a strong speaker against a less compelling one using no slides, well-designed, or ugly slides, researchers found that well-designed slides significantly influenced the audience—regardless of the speaker’s skill. That’s because how information is presented evokes an emotion, and when the audience saw crisp, professional slides they were more likely to rate the speaker’s idea as credible and worthwhile. For board presentations, creating the best slides doesn’t have to mean hiring a full-time graphic designer, but it should mean choosing a presentation tool with an intuitive interface that allows even non-designers to create professional-looking slides.

It’s easy, in the run-up to a board meeting, to want to focus all of your time on picking out data points and streamlining analysis. But keep in mind that the way you present that information can sway everything from the conversation that follows to the board’s view of the finance function.

Original blog by Bob Hanson for Workday Adaptive Planning