The Skill That Can Make or Break a CFO’s Career

Successful CFOs can deliver compelling financial presentations. Here's how to do it.
Rob MorhaimJune 21, 2021

Of the many vitally important roles and responsibilities of a chief financial officer, the ability to deliver compelling financial presentations would likely not make the top five. But as many CFOs would attest, these presentations can make or break careers. Deliver a compelling and persuasive presentation and you’re a hero. Deliver a rambling, unfocused one, and that next promotion is in jeopardy.

Over my years in television, both as a studio executive and a producer, I’ve had the good fortune to work intimately with people who can move an audience.

Today, as a communications consultant to high-profile business leaders, I work one-on-one with CFOs and CEOs who need to communicate persuasive messaging to important audiences, both small and large. Here are five tips to help ensure a great presentation every time.

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1. Craft your presentation for your audience.

Every quarter, CFOs are so focused on gathering the content, verifying its validity, and creating the requisite slides to present that they don’t consider who will be on the receiving end of that information. The way you present to analysts and shareholders is probably very different from presenting similar information to the board of directors. Reverse engineering your presentation from the perspective of the audience is a critical first step.

2. Have a clear message.

Once you have a mental picture of who will be the receivers of the message, it’s important to spend time thinking about the main message you are looking to communicate. It is crucial always to keep that message as your North Star because it will form the foundation for delivering it to the audience. If it’s an insider-based audience, your message can be more detailed and technical. If it’s an outsider audience, you will probably have to take complicated information and simplify it.

3. Create a narrative.

Numbers tell a story, and stories can be a potent tool to help illuminate the numbers engagingly and memorably. When I work with CFOs in preparing them for presentations, getting them to think about the numbers as a narrative can sometimes be challenging.

A newly minted CEO that I recently worked with told me an off-hand story about an experience she had at her previous company. Unbeknownst to her, this story dovetailed perfectly into a point she was trying to make for an upcoming quarterly earnings call. We spent time tightening it up for the call, strategized about its placement, and worked on weaving it in seamlessly.

The feedback we got later was that the story was one of the top takeaways from that call. When trying to create a narrative, think of an experience from your work or personal life that can create a visual link to your message.

4. Anticipate questions.

Financial presentations are two-way conversations. More often than not, CFO’s don’t spend enough time anticipating the questions that could arise with each slide or piece of information.

It’s critical to put yourself in the position of the board member, investor, or analyst and ask yourself what questions could arise. Come up with a list and craft the answer in writing. But make sure you also include the most challenging questions you can think of. If they don’t get asked, that’s great. But you’ll go into your presentation with more confidence knowing that you’re armed for anything.

5. Rehearse.

John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, famously said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Without proper rehearsal, all the previous work you’ve done will be for naught. It’s important to leave yourself enough time to practice delivering the content and crafting the narrative.

When I work with clients, I make sure we rehearse by replicating the experience as much as possible. That means practicing in the same room with the same equipment you’ll be using for the actual presentation. Involve a trusted colleague on the team and, if you can, record it. While many people don’t like to see themselves on video, this extra step separates a good rehearsal from a great one. Ask yourself, does it feel long? Does it make sense? Are there weak points that could be strengthened? The only way to find out is with a formal, recorded rehearsal.

I’m confident that incorporating some or all of these points will pay dividends in your next financial presentation.

Rob Morhaim is president of Chicago-based Morhaim Media Consulting, which works with high-profile business executives on effective communications and presentation skills.