You’re On!

Sharpening your presentation skills.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 1, 2004

The stammering, the sweating, the laptop that freezes and leaves the speaker stranded at the podium: presentations like this are the stuff of nightmares. Today, finance executives are presenting to everyone from employees to equity analysts, and they’re taking steps to avoid such disastrous trips to the microphone.

According to corporate-presentation coaches, the CFO is a major client these days — not to mention a major challenge. “It started with the whole stock-market run-up, when all the investor activity put the CFO in the spotlight,” says Deirdre Peterson, a New York-based communications trainer who says she’s been coaching more finance executives than ever lately. “Now they’re in the spotlight because they’re being scrutinized.”

For both outsider and insider audiences, today’s CFO is often the one expected to deliver the hard financial news about a company, whether good or bad. Finance executives convey those messages in traditional forums such as board meetings, departmental gatherings, and industry conferences, as well as, frequently, over the telephone in news interviews and earnings calls with analysts. “There’s a sense of credibility about the financial picture when you’re hearing the numbers from the CFO,” says Timothy Cage, also a New York-based communications coach.

Some of the presentation challenges finance executives face are universal. “The most glaring problem I see is a lack of connection with the audience,” says Cage. “What to a busy executive may seem like a professional, brisk, coherent approach comes across as cold, aloof, uninterested, and uninteresting.” Dan MacLean, a senior faculty member at Communispond, a New York communications training company, agrees. “Most people don’t come across the way they think they do,” he says. The ubiquitous technique of videotaping speakers and allowing them to watch themselves is a powerful — if often painful — tool for trainers to illustrate this point.

But there are dangers, like information overload, that are more specific to the CFO. “CFOs have a ton of information to present, and their tendency is to want to display it all and, frankly, bore the audience to tears,” says MacLean. “Investors need the information, but not all of it.” Finance executives may “think a lot about what they’re going to say, but it’s how they deliver the words that gives them their impact.”

Then there’s the seemingly dry material. “Compared to a marketing presentation, where the material could be about ideas, image, or a new program,” says Peterson, a CFO may find that “just walking through the numbers can get really boring really quickly.” And unlike sales and marketing executives, who may receive more presentation training, CFOs often don’t learn intonation and gesturing techniques for capturing audiences.

“It’s Not Intuitive”

Kevin Gregory sought out communications training in 2002, after he ascended to the finance chief’s job at ProQuest Co., a $470 million electronic-content publisher based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “For a lot of people, myself included, presenting is not intuitive,” says Gregory. “And I had not had a lot of experience with it in the controller role.”

With a schedule that lately has included a number of shareholder and analyst phone calls and “mini road shows” with investors, Gregory says he now represents the company to the outside world once a week on average. He has learned to maintain an awareness of the listener’s perspective when preparing a presentation. “It’s easy to jump into a discussion and assume that there’s a certain level of understanding that’s just not there” when addressing unfamiliar groups, he says. “If you just start drilling down immediately, you’re going to lose everybody. You need to start with the overall premise and then work through the specifics.”

It is vital to set a tone that’s tailored to your particular audience, says Peterson. Investors, especially, “don’t want overt spin.” While the CFO’s approach must be “more than just reciting the numbers,” she says, “it can’t become too promotional, either.”

David S. Johnson, CFO of Carter & Burgess Inc., an engineering and architectural firm based in Fort Worth, learned the importance of effective presentations during his 15-year tenure at General Electric Co., where he listened to such speaking legends as former CEO Jack Welch and former finance chief Dennis Dammerman. In the time between leaving GE and landing his current post in 1998, Johnson took a course from Communispond to hone his skills.

“As you move from one job to the next, the amount of presenting you have to do goes up dramatically,” says Johnson. Especially after moving into “a leadership role like CFO or high-level controller, the ability to speak to large groups is critical.” At Carter & Burgess, which has a workforce of around 2,300, Johnson says that training employees through presentations saves significant time and effort. Giving a targeted talk about the bottom-line benefits of facilities leasing, for example, helps him avoid answering dozens of questions on the subject later.

Between training sessions and investor meetings, Johnson says, he sometimes finds himself talking to groups as often as three times a week. “There’s such an incredible jump in the impact you have when you’re an effective speaker,” says the CFO. “And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to do it right.”

Say What?

Some speaking tips from the experts.

Know the audience. Instead of “What do I want to say?” think “What does the audience need to hear?” suggests Communispond’s Dan MacLean.

Focus on delivery. “Voice quality matters,” says trainer Deirdre Peterson. Especially on the phone, keep listeners alert with “verbal flags like ‘our top priority’ or ‘the key thing.’ “

Don’t just read figures off a page or a computer screen. “It looks like the CFO lacks confidence in the numbers,” notes communications coach Timothy Cage.

Keep PowerPoints basic. Don’t “get too complex with animation and flying bullet points,” says MacLean. Emphasize important points and skip the extras. “Sometimes we give PowerPoint a little too much power.”

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