A Business Partner’s Advice: To Add Value, Finance Must Become Storytellers

Once upon a time in a land far away... We all know this phrase, beginning from our childhood when our parents told us fairy tales about kings, knights, and dragons all fighting for the kingdom and the princess.

However, storytelling is not only for kids at bedtime, but is certainly also for grown-ups in the middle of their career and for companies in general. Those that tell stories will get others to listen, and if you’re a company leader, and certainly if you’re a sales person, that’s exactly what you’re aiming for.

There’s one department in the company, though, where the art of telling stories hasn’t really found its place yet. The finance department. 

Finance people like numbers, not words and while you can certainly get creative with how you present the numbers, you will still need to put a story around them. Let’s discuss why this is important and how you can do it.

What most finance people can do are to tell you, on an account-by-account basis, what the variance is, and a one-liner on what has happened to create the variance. That’s hardly engaging and gives the impression you lack business knowledge

Storytelling and finance                      

Let’s first take a look at the definition of storytelling: “Storytelling is the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, often with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment.”

Let’s be honest. No matter how fancy a PowerPoint presentation you make, it’s hard to make your numbers look improvised, theatrical and embellished. What most finance people can do are to tell you, on an account-by-account basis, what the variance is, and a one-liner on what has happened to create the variance.

That’s hardly engaging and gives the impression you lack business knowledge every single month you press send on that management report. Even your waterfall charts and heat maps won’t change that. So you need to build a story around the numbers to explain why a particular event happened.

This is important because you want to make your numbers understood by the business. Moreover, you should consider that people working in other functions are typically learning and understanding developments and new concepts in visual and verbal ways – whereas finance people learn largely by the numbers.

Storytelling will be your bridge to creating a common understanding of business performance with the frontline managers and peers in the leadership team in order to guide them on how to improve. That's why storytelling is important even for finance people.

Reporting vs. telling a story

Let's take a look at one example of how to create this bridge and create a new understanding using storytelling. As the Finance Manager, you’re at the monthly management meeting and you’re asked to explain the numbers of one of your company’s drilling rigs’ performance in the last month (I've worked for a drilling company for five years, hence the choice of example). 

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