Numbers Can Tell a Story - in Conversation with Nicola (Nikki) Fraser

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Image by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

Working with numbers seems like a daunting task to many of us. However, incorporating numbers in a story can be an effective way of getting your financial message across. Numbers can help make abstract ideas real and lend authority to content.

A results-driven leader, Nikki Fraser has been named a Financial Storyteller on multiple occasions and has applied storytelling throughout her career with big corporations and start-ups alike.

Nikki is now Managing Partner at Next Key Services and continues to use her love for numbers to navigate through everyday business challenges.

Nikki, you have been called ‘financial storyteller’. What does it mean and how have you created your brand around financial storytelling? You are good with numbers, and help people make sense of numbers. Tell us how this works.

“Imagine if you will, a presentation to your Board of Directors, briefing them on your problematic quarter. The presentation is 60 pages of wall-to-wall eye sore charts and numbers. Lots of numbers, with little narrative or insightful explanations about what happened, and how the senior leadership expects to react in the coming quarters. Do you really expect your board to be helpful, or do you wonder why the tension between management and the board is growing?

“Enter the financial storyteller — senior executives, especially CFOs, are increasingly expected to understand, investigate, and share the story behind the numbers. The numbers are the facts and can be viewed objectively — the financial story provides context and creditability behind them. Together, stories and numbers help executives achieve the desired objectives of critical interactions with stakeholders. Whether that be to educate, motivate, or enable swift decision making. CEOs and CFOs are the most critical communicators of companies, private or public. It is imperative that they view the role of Chief Storyteller as vital as their traditional titles. Financial storytelling is an art that uses the financial data in a supporting role to meet the objectives I noted before. As an artist, there is no right or wrong, but rather an ability to cater the message to what your audience needs to know.

“I could talk for hours on the different facets, issues, and investments required to arm CFOs and finance executives with data. That said, I’d offer up the following cornerstones of a successful start to building a culture and organization to support Financial Storytelling:

Understand the Business

  • If you understand the business, then you can tell the story with numbers. Whether you’re a CFO or starting out in your finance or accounting career, be curious and ask questions. It’s very powerful and valuable to include finance in business decision making, strategy, and risk.

Understand the Audience

  • How deep do you go? How much data do you use? What is the intent of the interaction? If you don’t know your audience or what they expect, you can lose them by conveying too many statistics and irrelevant data. Nobody really remembers statistics, but if someone shares it in the context of a story — they will remember. That’s what is needed.

Single Source of Data

  • Be vigilant in seeking a single source of the data. There is nothing worse than relying on multiple sources that keep changing on a whim that creates unnecessary rework every time something changes. Focus your finance teams on gathering a single data source that you can rely on. This does not mean they cannot rely on multiple systems. Ideally, have the data feed into a single place where standardized reports can be developed and validated timely. This creates efficiency in sourcing and validating data thereby enabling more time to analyze and tell the story.

Finance and Business Connection

  • CFOs should allocate more time with the business and building relationships with key stakeholders internally and externally, with the goal of understanding and investigating the business reasons why things happen the way they do. Yes, a traditional CFO is focused on closing the books and records in a timely fashion and creating budgets; however, it is so vital for CFOs to have a connection with the operations in order to complete the narrative and help inform business decisions.

“I have been fortunate to interact with mentors and leaders that have emphasized the importance of financial storytelling. It is ingrained in my thinking and my approach to problem-solving. The numbers are the numbers; however, building a culture and organization to support the Chief Storytellers is very valuable to a company, the senior executives, and the board of directors. Watch this space as we dig deeper into this concept and offer up views on some other helpful thoughts and tips.”

Thank you for sharing this rather unique approach, Nikki.

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