Finance chiefs need to express themselves more effectively than ever before. Whether it’s communicating internally, such as in a business partnering capacity, or presenting to shareholders and other stakeholders, there is no excuse for not being able to present well. Any ambitious finance director must have good presentation skills- or they run the risk of falling flat on their face, just when their career looks set for the next stage.
A big driver for better presentation skills comes from finance chiefs taking on more strategic roles in their organisations, as finance is increasingly being called upon to go beyond delivering the numbers as a strategic business partner. When mining data and analysing trends, accounting and finance professionals can often uncover valuable insights for the business. As such, finance professionals are working closer with various departments to identify opportunities or areas of concern requires them to have exceptional soft skills.
The importance of soft skills finance professionals at all levels has seen a significant shift, says Matt Weston, Director of recruiter Robert half UK. He says the need for soft skills is rising across the board, including roles in financial services. “From a recruitment perspective we are seeing businesses in both commerce and industry, and financial services seeking professionals with soft skills. The type of soft-skills businesses are looking for range from exceptional communications skills, presentation ability, adaptability and flexibility, leadership, and commercial nous,” he says.
Businesses are paying nearly as much attention to a candidate’s soft skills as their technical ability, and it’s a candidate’s soft-skills that can often be the deciding factor, says Weston. “Accountants can no longer tuck themselves away in the back office, knowing that they will never be asked to step into the limelight. The ability to make a good presentation is now a key skill in the financial manager’s armoury,” he adds.
As the influence of the finance function expands to inform decision making, support change and partner more closely with the business, engaging presentations are becoming more important when conveying this advice to different business departments. “As a result, strong presentation skills are more critical than ever to make compelling points, package information and explain technical information to non-financial stakeholders,” says Weston.
“For example, with the growing digitisation of the finance function and the rapidly-changing business environment, the interaction between finance and IT teams is increasing. In situations like this, businesses expect finance professionals to be able to communicate with various level of the businesses in a clear manner to facilitate the changes required,” he explains.
Practice makes perfect
Professor Dave Coker, Interim Course Leader in Investment & Risk Finance at the University of Westminster, says it’s vitally important to plan and rehearse any presentation. Prof Coker, who admits to rehearsing up to 100 times before presenting, depending on the audience, says these run-throughs are done on camera to ensure cadence and body language are correct.
“Try and get a message over to an audience in a clear and concise way as possible,” advises Prof Coker, a former investment banker from New York, who has lived in London since 1997. “Keep in mind folks can’t process too much information, so KISS (‘Keep It Simple Stupid’) applies. “I try to present no more than three key points,” he adds.
Prof Coker says: “Effective PowerPoint is often presented as an art but I’d suggest it’s more a science — keep your slides uncluttered and avoid bogus looking clipart, especially animations,” he warns. “Use a remote clicker, you want to move about the stage as you present and engage that audience. Otherwise people will think you’re trying to hide behind the podium where the keyboard is,” he advises.
Specialist coaches are even available to offer training on how to build stage presence. Richard Newman, Director of training consultancy UKBodyTalk. He says everyone can increase impact when they employ the most effective styles possible- what he describes as “speaking the way that you were born to speak.
What does this mean? He says many business people have fallen into bad habits, coping strategies and affectations they are not even aware of that diminish their presence. “We call this anti-gravitas. The most common ones are where people lean off-centre, resting their weight on one hip, shifting their weight from one side to the other, swaying, wandering, doing limp gesturing or restricting their arm movements in a bid to look more ‘professional’. All of these distract the audience from your message and reduce your impact,” he warns.
This is the place where gravity is working most effectively on your body, urges Newman. “You see this stance being used by elite athletes, such as tennis players, in golf, basketball, the list goes on. When we are preparing to perform at our best we get gravity on our side and then act,” says Newman.
He says there are plenty of tips for overcoming nerves. “It’s important to remember that nerves are normal. Nerves show that you are human. They also show that you care about talking to people. Nerves are fine. What you need to avoid is fear, stresses Newman. “Nerves are a sign from your brain saying ‘get ready’, fear says ‘stop, run away while you still can,” he says.
It’s worth having a few strategies to make sure that you achieve a peak performance mind set, advises Newman. An example is visualisation, a technique famously practised by leading sportspeople such as boxer Mohammed Ali and cyclist Chris Hoy to foresee a positive outcome. “To replicate this for public speaking, simply see the event, as if looking through your own eyes at the people you are speaking to,” suggests Newman.
He advises finance directors to focus on seeing themselves giving the greatest delivery possible, despite anything that may happen. “I personally prefer doing this while going for a walk and listening to my favourite music, as it gets you out of your worried mind, feeling positive and energised. If you have an especially important event coming up I suggest that you do this for 15 minutes per day for two weeks before your event. This will hard-wire your mind to succeed,” he adds.