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Tell the real story behind your data with FP&A storytelling

6 min read

Present your data with FP&A storytelling

By: Unit4 | 31 March 2021

Photo by @campaign_creators from Unsplash

How we digest and make sense of what data is telling us is a big question these days. With so much data available and so many new tools to use, track, analyze, and visualize it, it’s tempting to try and use them all at once to get maximum results.

But does presenting all your data in one go really help, or just cause more confusion? Is there a better, more concise way to tell your data stories? Let’s find out.

What do FP&A managers actually need?

Mostly you need more time, more answers, and easier methods for explaining what’s happening, why and what next. And while data can provide answers, going through all that information and then presenting it in detail can quickly swallow your time.

One option to resolve the above issue is the use of “dashboards”, with the understanding these would fix the data story problem and give your audience back time while delivering answers.

And while dashboards can help visualize the data, they can be just as confusing and difficult to navigate as data is without them. Ask yourself this, do dashboards give you answers or just present data more neatly?

Dashboard downfall

We all love a good dashboard, don’t we? All those graphs and donut charts. But how useful are they?

For data scientists, they’re probably just as impressive as they seem. However, for the rest of your organization, the real value lies in understanding what they tell you and, just as importantly, what they’re not telling you. And doing so quickly. So how do you tell that story?

The key issue here is that graphs and charts are great for reading and tracking data. But they don’t necessarily offer solutions. It’s just raw factual data displayed clearly. Answers and interpretations are then down to you or your audience. And story-based reporting can help you present all this data and outcomes more engagingly.

For example, let’s say you have a good budgeting and forecasting system, like FP&A. If that’s the case, you can then automatically compare actuals vs. budget and forecast. This will become your guide to identifying “Where we have an issue” / “Where are we not achieving our goals”. Now your role is like that of a journalist uncovering the story behind the numbers.

Once identified, it will also help point you in the right direction for figuring out the areas you need to analyze to find reasons why this happened.

Finally, all this analysis will allow you to tell that story and possible outcomes to other teams, like management, the board or CEOs, so that they can quickly understand the situation and their options for resolving it.

According to the IBCS, “Good reports successfully achieve both the goals of the writer and of the reader.” They map out and explain what is happening straight away, ask the questions that need asking, and offer solutions.

Applied to your data, that would mean instantly showing readers what’s working and what’s not, giving context, history, and the reasons behind why, instead of showing them everything and letting them come to their own conclusions. This is where dashboards fall down for reporting.

Their failure is they have everything you need (often way more), but there’s no story. But how would a story help?

Storytelling has always worked.

As we all know, stories are how we have traditionally communicated and shared knowledge and understanding.

So consider this, right now, you create a regular monthly report full of every piece of data you have, which leaves it up to others to understand and scour for meaning or guidance on what to do. It’s an extensive report to prepare but also to read.

But what if the report you delivered every month was engaging, concise, and gave clear solutions and guidance? Think how much more useful readers would find that. And that’s where storytelling can transform your reporting.

Right now, FP&A gives you the ability to do actuals, forecasting and budgeting deviation analysis and find relevant trends and issues. Having identified those, now you need to find the stories for those deviations and working with your business partners and leadership team identify the answers to solve them. But how do you get all this information across?

As the author, this is where storytelling matters. With it, your monthly report suddenly moves from a simple outline of data to a more useful document. Now it pulls the relevant data to the top of the page (instead of buried deep within), and it lets you outline solutions in the headlines for quick insights, but with the power for those who need more detail to dig deeper.

In essence, you’re creating a newspaper and you’re the journalist, outlining the issues up top and letting people see what they mean and why that matters beneath.

Suddenly your data has gone from pretty images that are time-consuming to navigate, to something your audience is familiar with. Now it’s easy for others to scan, follow, and dig down on anything that jumps out.

It may not look as flashy or colorful as a dashboard. But instead, you can provide handpicked headlines that work to the objectives of your organization. This format lets you focus on the big picture by showing people the news that matters. Rather than showing everything and expecting them to figure out what’s important.

And this approach works because it focuses on two key things: stories and standardization.

Yes, your audience can have different preferences for what they see, but everyone’s “stories” remain focused on the objectives your organization aims to achieve. And they highlight only the data that can helps do this or needs attention to make this happen.

And everything else that has no relevance is left out.

How do you do this?

You achieve this by focusing on standardization and stories. But that’s probably an oversimplification. For more expert guidance on making this work, you can look at organizations like the IBCS and apply their guidance to your systems.

The IBCS has a simple formula for success when using data to tell clearer data stories. The headlines for the SUCCESS formula are:

  •  SAY — convey a message
  •  UNIFY — Apply a semantic notion
  •  CONDENSE — Increase information density
  •  CHECK — Ensure visual integrity
  •  EXPRESS — Choose proper visualization
  •  SIMPLIFY — Avoid clutter
  •  STRUCTURE — Organize content

Find a full explanation for these on the link above. But the point is with data, it’s crucial to decide what matters to your organization, remove anything unnecessary, and present what remains clearly and consistently.

Then your data can quickly and precisely tell people what matters at any moment in time. Whether that’s every week, morning, or hour.

Dashboards vs. Stories

So which approach is better for you? Despite the usefulness and power of storytelling for data, the answer isn’t wholly clear-cut. It will depend on what you need. Dashboards, when undertaking in-depth analysis, can fill that need. However, you should consider who has this need and how often.

Think of it this way. Does everyone begin their day undertaking in-depth analysis? Some people do, but most of us don’t.

On the other hand, most of us need to know our priorities for the day, what has changed since we last logged in, or what’s happening that could affect what we’re doing. And so on. Focusing the data you present into a clear newspaper-like format can achieve this and help fuel the data needs of your organization. Giving people deeper insights for strategic decision-making instantly. Letting them find answers faster, plan quicker, and make better decisions every day. So which is it you are trying to achieve?

Credit: Unit4 Communications