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  • Writer's pictureBrett Hampson

Using Data Analytics to Drive Financial Performance

“Don’t let the data get in the way of a good story”


I heard this early in my career and instantly lost respect for the person who said it.


We as finance professionals are supposed to be the arbiters of truth…


…the Switzerland of the business world.


But here I was being told to ignore 80% of the insights I found through my analysis and only focus on the 20% that were relevant to the agenda we were trying to push forward.


You know what?


They were right.


And now, it’s one of my most powerful tools that I leverage as a finance leader who wants things in the business to go a certain way…


When was the last time you motivated someone to do something different?


I’m not necessarily talking about at work, but anytime in life:

  • Try a new restaurant

  • Buy something on Amazon

  • Join your workout class


I’m sure you can think of a time where you got a friend of family member to budge on something you cared about.


You probably used natural forms of persuasion to drive action.


I bet one of those methods was storylining (as we call it in finance).


It’s one of the most powerful tools we have to drive action.


Why?


Because we naturally gravitate to stories. It’s part of the human experience. And we are wired to listen to stories that grip our attention.


And more then ever, business leaders are set on their current direction and need a strong nudge to do something different.


Let’s explore how you can drive more outcomes by leveraging the skill of storylining:


But first… why am I writing on this topic?


Because I see too many finance professional as analytical zombies.


Walking around and simply providing facts within their analysis. They master tools and techniques but forget that the whole reason finance exists is to help the business become stronger by making better decisions.


That’s fine for the first few years in your career. But at some point you need to transition to driving action.


I see finance professionals so unsure of how to craft a compelling storyline that they don’t even try.


They show up to results meetings, read off their notes, then clock out for the day.

Again, that’s fine.


But it won’t help you become a CFO or an effective finance leader.


And frankly, most business leaders don’t need someone to simply read them a report.


6 Steps to Building Your Storyline


Admittingly, I don’t explicitly follow the steps below when building a storyline.


But as I am reflecting on the subconscious steps I’m taking, below is a clean 6-step breakdown of what I’m thinking at each step of the way.


As I mentioned earlier, most finance professionals are competent at pulling data and doing analysis. So we won’t be focusing on that.


Let’s assume at this point you already have a perspective on a result that you want your business partner to take action on.


That means you likely have done just enough analysis on the results that you can come to a conclusion. But you aren’t sure your business partners are on the same page… yet…


0. Who is the decision-maker?


It is a waste of time trying to get the wrong person to make a decision that they have no ability to make.


Go straight for the decision maker and understand how they tend to make decisions.

  • Who do they trust?

  • How do they like to work?

  • What is their position in the org?


Truthfully, your relationship strength with the decision maker is often the number 1 reason you’ll be successful in driving action in the business.


If you don’t have a strong relationship with decision makers in your company, now is the time to build it. As how their weekend was. Do they have kids? What hobbies do they enjoy?


1. Know the Political Context


Understanding the political landscape within your organization is crucial. Take note of what strategies have failed in the past and why. This knowledge will help you craft a narrative that acknowledges these failures while presenting your strategy as a learned solution.


The goal here is to truly just stay away from ‘political landmines’. Use your manager or others who have been around for a while to sniff these out and stay away from them.


2. Understand Core Motivations


To persuade, you must first understand. Think critically about the motivations driving your business partners. Are they most concerned with cost reduction, revenue growth, or perhaps risk mitigation? Tailoring your storyline to address these motivations will make it more compelling.


A common psychological tool is the fact that people are far more likely to take action to avoid pain rather than take action to get an added benefit.


When in doubt, use the ‘this decision will help you avoid [negative consequence]’.


3. Form a Strong Opinion


After analyzing the results and understanding the direction you want to go, form a strong opinion. This conviction will serve as the backbone of your storyline, ensuring it has a clear and compelling message.


Remember, you already walked in with an idea of which direction you want to go. But now it’s time to double-down and become the champion for the action you want.


This has to be one of the top 3 secret weapons to my finance career: being the one who cares the most.


If you truly care and people sense it, they will believe and follow even when they are unsure.


Be convinced and be confident.


4. Build Your Case


Use a mix of external data, historical context (what’s been tried and failed), and the potential consequences of inaction to bolster your case. This step is about painting a picture of why your proposed direction is not just preferable but necessary.


Make it so obvious that they should make the decision you want, that it would be odd if they didn’t make the decision.


5. Present Alternatives


Offering alternatives demonstrates thoroughness and objectivity. However, ensure your preferred solution is shown in the most favorable light.


Highlight the pros and cons of each but steer the narrative towards why your solution is the optimal choice.


6. Be Persistent


Change often requires persistence.


Don’t be discouraged if acceptance doesn’t come immediately; it may take several presentations or discussions for your storyline to resonate and spur action.


A Real Life Example


Sometimes it’s easier to learn through examples.


So here’s one from earlier in my career where things went right:

(intentionally vague in places… confidentiality… blah blah)


Costs were exploding and nobody really knew why.


Everybody was pushing this story that made sense on the surface, but the data just didn’t support it.


And the story made it convenient for the business to say “it’s not our fault, it's the economy”.


A quick analysis showed that the economy was to blame, but there was clearly something else happening.


The problem was that we couldn’t prove it without engaging our business partners to do a customer-level review. That would have been days/weeks of their time.


And the conclusion that I thought we’d find was: their historical process was the cause of additional cost inflation.


So they had 0 incentive to engage in the work with me.


We were stuck.


Here was my approach:

  • I made sure to exhaust every other hypothesis out there - this included framing the prevailing hypothesis in a way that clearly showed it wasn’t the only cause of increasing costs.

  • I put together a 50 page PowerPoint deck with all my findings and slide one showed a gap on my waterfall graph where there was an ‘unidentified’ driver.

  • Why did I do that? Because the decision maker I was supporting was risk averse and needed excessive amounts of data to be convinced. I needed to ‘kill them with analysis’.

  • And I couldn’t go to the head of the business unit with this info, they historically were defensive of their team. I needed to work the back-channels with a particular finance leader who had the ear of my business partner’s leader.

  • This analysis went on for 3 months. Every day for 3 months I had my PowerPoint open with the deck working on this. And every month for 3 months I tried to get people to take action but they needed more analysis on it…


Efficient? No.

Effective? Absolutely.


In the end, a lot of activity was kicked up from my work: external consultants, weeks of customer level audits, even the CEO got involved.


It was a mess… in the best way.


My advice? Find your own version of this to drive forward.


What results do you see that you feel passionate about helping the business change?


And if you face political resistance, use my 6 step formula for driving results with a storyline.


In Summary:


Storylining is a powerful tool in the finance professional’s arsenal.


It goes beyond mere data presentation, engaging leaders on an emotional level and painting a vivid picture of the future that can be achieved with the right strategies.


Remember, the most successful finance narratives are those that are well-researched, thoughtfully constructed, and delivered with conviction.


Start applying these principles to your communications, and watch as your ideas gain the traction they deserve.



 


Whenever you are ready, check out the Finance Leadership Lab. It's the place where 500+ finance professionals have learned corporate finance and leadership best practices to grow their career.

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