Simple tips and techniques to deliver powerful (financial) presentations

Jennifer H. Elder, CPA, CMA, CIA, CFF, CGMA, MS, president, The Sustainable CFO | February/March 2018 Footnote

Many people hate even thinking about giving a presentation, let alone actually giving one.

Why? Because we have all sat through horrible presentations. Long introductions solely focused on the speaker's many accomplishments, doing a sound check to kick off, droning on (and on) in a hypnotic monotone -- we've all been there.

Don't be that presenter. No matter how dry your material is perceived to be, your next presentation can be insightful, engaging and impactful. Best of all, it's not that hard to nail down! Read on to become a powerful presenter by using these tips to overcome the top-seven presentation mistakes.

Mistake No. 1: going too long

Have you ever sat through a presentation wishing that the presenter would just get to the point? They have 50 slides for a five-minute presentation and only manage to get to the main point on the very last slide.

Instead, when you are preparing a presentation, challenge yourself to cut it down by 20 percent. If you have 20 slides, remove four. If your presentation is 30 minutes, cut it down to 25 minutes. Forcing yourself to remove 20 percent will get rid of filler and leave you with only the key points.

Mistake No. 2: using a monotone voice

Too many presenters believe they sound more professional if they speak in monotone. They may sound serious, but it seriously puts the audience to sleep. No one ever speaks in a monotone voice normally because monotone is boring. So, why should anyone in the audience be interested in what you're saying if you sound like you are bored with your own topic?

When speaking, let your enthusiasm and passion show. Change up your voice; speak loudly, softly, slowly and quickly in a range of pitches. To prepare your voice to be modulated, try saying the word "oh" as if you are happy, sad, surprised, disappointed or joyful. Just two little letters can represent so many different meanings based on how they are said. If you share your excitement with the audience, they are much more likely to join in and pay attention.

Mistake No. 3: being unprepared

Nothing makes a presentation more difficult to sit through than an unprepared speaker. You can be the leading expert, but fumbling through your notes or being confused by your own slides instantly kills your credibility.

There is no substitute for practice if you want to give a professional presentation. Most people spend 95 percent of their time putting a presentation together, yet only 5 percent of the time reading through it.

Powerful presenters will spend more than 30 percent of their total preparation time practicing their presentation out loud. It's best to practice in a setting similar to where you are presenting. If you are presenting to a board of directors, practice in the boardroom. If you will present at a staff meeting, practice sitting down. The more your practice reflects the actual setting, the more comfortable you will be when the time comes to give your presentation.

Mistake No. 4: using jargon

One small TLA and the audience will stop paying attention to what you are saying and try to figure out the acronym -- just like you are right now (TLA stands for three-letter acronym). As soon as you become a CPA, the acronyms start rolling off your tongue -- GAAP, GAAS, MACRS and EBITDA. And, many organizations have their own internal acronyms for divisions and reports.

While the acronyms are easier to say than a full title, you may lose and confuse your audience. Never assume everyone understands jargon. When using an acronym, always define what it is. Then going forward, you can use the acronym.

Mistake No. 5: talking at the audience

Lectures are another bad memory -- sitting in rows upon rows listening to "Charlie Brown's teacher" talk at you as if their words will magically enter your ears and cement themselves in your brain as knowledge. Wrong! Talking at an audience is another way to hit the snooze button. Instead, try engaging your audience in your presentation by asking them questions and letting them ask you questions.

You could start a presentation by asking a question like, "How do you think our results were last month?" or, "What department had the greatest increase in sales this quarter?" Asking a question will move the audience from passively listening to actively thinking. If you want to ensure that your audience remembers a key point, you can ask them to repeat the point: "What did I say was the trend in government spending?" or, "What was the most important idea I covered?"

In addition, invite your audience to ask questions as you are speaking. Your audience has a right to understand what you are talking about. If they have a question and must hold it until the end to get an answer, they will stop paying attention to you when the question pops into their head and start trying to figure out the answer on their own. Then they miss the rest of your talk. Let people raise their questions when they have them so they can maintain their focus on you.

Mistake No. 6: ums, uhs and ahs

These are the little filler words that annoy both presenters and audiences -- the ums, uhs and ahs. Some presenters hear themselves using those fillers and some don't. The audience definitely hears them. If they are too frequent, someone in the audience will start counting them and stop paying attention to your message.

Paying attention to those filler words will not make them go away. Neither will ignoring them. However, you can make them go away if you understand what causes them -- speaking too fast. We can speak much faster than our brains can think. Those fillers are how your brain asks you to slow down to give it time to catch up. If you find yourself using filler words, the simple solution is to slow down. Your audience will appreciate it, too.

Mistake No. 7: using numbers incorrectly

Remember that not everyone speaks "numbers" like a CPA. Avoid "number clutter" by putting too many numbers on a page or on a slide. If you want to focus on accounts receivable, you do not have to display the entire balance sheet. Simplify the presentation by only showing the current assets and highlight the accounts receivable number. You can even color-code the numbers: green for good, yellow for stable and red for bad.

You also want to present more than just the numbers. Explain the What/So What/Now What. The What is simply a number, like the cash balance of a typical financial statement presentation. The So What is where you put the number in context; give your listener a reason to care. Is the cash balance higher or lower than you expected? Are you in a cash-flow crisis? The Now What is where you explain what the listener should do; what are the next steps? Should you cut back on discretionary spending or delay maintenance?

An information dump of numbers on numbers will overload and numb your listeners. When you give the numbers context and, more importantly, give actionable ideas based on the numbers, you provide more than information -- you provide insight!

Bringing it all together

Red Auerbach said, "It's not what you say that matters; it's what they hear."

You will become a more confident and powerful financial presenter by adding even one of these seven tips to your next presentation. So, what are you waiting for? You better start practicing for that next presentation.

Jennifer Elder is the president of The Sustainable CFO, which provides training and presentations to CPA societies and private organizations. She can be reached at 410-231-1881 or