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A Few Simple Tips for Presenting Financial Information to Non-Financial Audiences

Presentations of financial information are a routine part of municipal operations; however, they are not always the most widely anticipated. In fact, I once heard it said that such presentations can pull all the air out of the room! While these tips aren’t guaranteed to make presentations more interesting, hopefully they will make them more understandable to the audience.

  • Start with your key messages and use the data you need to support them (and no more!).  Unless the purpose is to educate the audience on the process steps, avoid showing all the intermediate math and get to the punch line.

  • Don’t use acronyms (or define them if you do) and define technical terms in lay language if possible. For example, depreciation might be defined as an accounting measure of how much of an asset is consumed each year based on its useful life.

  • Precision can be distracting - $2 million is more approachable than $2,095,782.16.

  • Use simple graphics – the purpose of graphs and charts is to simplify and clarify. Graphs with multiple axes or lots of lines and bars to support too many points may only add to the confusion. Multiple graphics can sometimes be clearer than too much data on one graph.

  • If you don’t know an answer, don’t guess and don’t calculate things on the fly. Make sure you clearly understand the question and get back with a response once you have the necessary information.

  • Generally, you are asked to present because you are the expert or possess the knowledge that needs to be shared. Don’t feel you need to prove how much you know – focus on clarity and the outcome you want to achieve.

A few more tips that can be applied to all presentations, not just those with financial content:

  • Review your presentation from the standpoint of the audience – what questions would you ask?  What would you want to know if you were the decision-maker? How about a citizen unfamiliar with the topic?

  • Think about what you would ask if you were receiving the presentation and be ready with the answer. Especially if you know your audience, think about what each person might ask and either include the information in your presentation or know the answer if asked during Q&A (and I bet a number of those questions will be asked and the person asking will be impressed).

  • Keep slide bullets brief and don’t read the slides - use them as discussion aids and embellish on them with the interesting stuff.

  • Choose an appropriate background – a busy background can distract from the content, but an appropriate design can help enhance the messaging.

  • Use color appropriately. Too much color can be distracting and remember that some in the audience may be color blind, so choose colors to maximize contrast. If there is possibility that the presentation will be printed in black and white, use patterns rather than colors.

  • Fight the temptation to memorize your presentation, so that you can be responsive if you get asked questions or the flow is interrupted. If you miss a point but the audience seems to be tracking, maybe you can leave it out or come back to it later as part of Q&A.

  • Practice, practice, practice!  If you are not comfortable presenting, practice helps work out the nerves, whether you do it alone or with an audience (maybe your boss or maybe someone who doesn’t know the topic, so you can get a perspective that might be representative of the public). If possible, practice in the actual location of the presentation using the equipment that will be available.  

Remember that you probably wouldn’t be asked to present on a topic if the audience didn’t think you have information they wanted or needed to hear. By focusing on the audience, rather than the details or your nerves, you can make finances fun or at least you may leave some air in the room!

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Photo of Tracey Dunlap

About Tracey Dunlap

Tracey Dunlap writes for MRSC as a gurst author.

Tracey Dunlap, P.E. is Deputy City Manager at the City of Kirkland and served as Kirkland’s Director of Finance & Administration from 2006 through 2014. Prior to joining Kirkland, she was a principal and shareholder in FCS Group, a regional financial and management consulting firm (14 years). An industrial engineer registered in the state of Washington, she has worked with jurisdictions throughout the Northwest to develop and implement cost recovery and fee strategies, set utility rates, and improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Tracey's experience also includes working for a large defense contractor (5 years) and a major financial institution (3 years). She has presented on a wide array of topics for organizations including WFOA, APWA, APA, WABO, and AWC.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.