Presenting Financials and Other Numbers so People Will Understand You

A crowd of 40 communicators and investor relations professionals turned out to hear author and financial expert, Randall Bolten, at the first event to be jointly hosted by SF IABC and the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI).

As a former CFO, Bolten is well aware that the interpretation of financial and other numerical information is often perceived to be difficult or obscure, but he insists that presenting numbers is not a math skill but a communication skill, relying on an understanding of rules of grammar, presentation, and reading flow, just like communication with words.

He’s even coined a word to sum up the skill—“quantation” derives from “quantative” and “communication” and is defined as “The act of presenting numbers, such as financial results, electronically or in written form for the purpose of informing an audience.”

Bolten is less interested in the presentation of data in infographics or graphs and more in how communicators can help an audience quickly and confidently locate and understand key indicators, trends, and the meaning behind numbers in the traditional financial tables presented in annual reports or investor relations material.

He took the audience through a number of examples, demonstrating how the use of white space, indents, double borders, and consistent formatting could all increase the clarity of information presented and reassure readers that they were properly interpreting the data. He also warned of the “Seven Deadly Sins” of presenting numbers, including not right-justifying a column of numbers, basing column width on the title of that column, and presenting numbers without context.

Bolten then focused on the role of communicators as “information middlemen” with a responsibility to ensure they understand the data and push for clarity from data providers. After all, as he pointed out, when you’re presenting, the audience associates the information with you, and it’s your reputation in the spotlight—not theirs!

Randall Bolten’s book, Painting with Numbers, will be published by Wiley on April 3, 2012.