Financial Storytelling: Paper by Stewart Marshall

by Dave on May 25, 2010

Stewart Marshall, CMA (photo by Kris Krug)

Tonight I gained an appreciation for the intricacies of financial storytelling after checking out Stewart Marshall’s white paper on the subject.  The paper effectively covers what financial storytelling is, why it applies to the world and how to get started in trying it out.

I’ve worked in finance in some capacity for nearly a decade, 2 years of which were spent in the Certified Management Accountant’s Strategic Leadership Program which covered, not surprisingly, strategy and leadership from an accounting perspective.  The program is ever-evolving and we learned many valuable skills, but one place where we were always evolving in my small group of 4 was our communication – both as individuals and as a team.  After a half dozen of serious case study presentations, we still hadn’t found the skills Stewart discusses in his paper.

This paper reminded me that stories make ideas accessible to everyone.  Some people will never be able to meet you where you’re at if you are trying to explain something because of some kind of barrier.  As the one in possession of information worth sharing, you need to meet people where they are at.

The secrets of leadership are almost always stories, take a book like Good to Great, or Made in America – we crave the story.

With this, Stewart reminded me of something I admire about entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs are typically amazing people, but they are also very diverse.  Entrepreneurs are often creative and compelling, but not necessarily the most academically decorated people we know.  What I’ve seen make entrepreneurs go from motivated to leading is an ability to absorb a story, adapt it to their own contexts and run with it.  The power of a story can change one’s business.  But it’s not just the stories from outside that should be changing the business – the stories from inside are equally important.

Stories make numbers accessible.  Some owners or managers simply want to do their business, not worry about numbers or being a Level-5 leader or some other technical component.  What they can often do, however, is emulate the people who do have a grasp of these things and make that effective.  In many worlds, playing the part, being dedicated, lucky and diligent can often work out just fine.

Closing the loop between the technical business, the end-user and other stakeholders is incredibly powerful.  I’ve been frustrated at various points in my career where this wasn’t happening.  Looking back, I can see the calamities I may have been causing with my own inability to tell a good financial story.  Making things work, getting people involved and passionate about where the numbers are leading is the goal – hoping that the numbers are self-evident simply isn’t sufficient.  Not enough analysts learn that business isn’t about having the right answer – it’s about having the most compelling, well-supported answer.

All of this is possible because the financials/numbers are used to build an emotional connection between the storyteller and the listener.

I’m glad to have read Stewart’s paper and will be sharing it with some of the folks in my circle to further the energy and discussions around the numbers we encounter day in and day out.

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