How to let data drive conversation, not destroy it

One of the common challenges faced by Finance is that no one cares about the numbers as much as they do. A bi-product of the above challenge is that Finance-folk are often criticised for talking about the wrong data in the wrong way. Data destroys the conversation, eroding the business partner relationship that follows. In order to play a relevant part in the conversation, Finance needs to respond. I read a great article recently called ‘The Power of Data for Meaningful Conversations’ and I nodded my head throughout. In fact, I was thinking ‘YES, YES, YES’!! Read it for yourself, but here are some of the key points:

  • Use data as a facilitation tool1 to:

  • Discover commonalities to bring groups of people together

  • Leverage strengths by identifying, using data, where they lie

  • Break down biases by widening perspectives

  • Desensitize emotional topics focusing energy on solution vs blame

  • Make sure data is valid and authoritative.2

  • Use visuals

I think this is really helpful for those sharing financial data during crunch times when emotions are heightened and a lot is at stake. Using data effectively goes a long way to helping the business partner conversation. However, it dawned on me that something was missing in the article. The fact that you must have a story to tell. Because without a relevant story, the numbers are useless. Before you read on, know this. The story is not the numbers. It’s words. It’s insight. It’s describing the business' focus and how that translates into drivers of performance. Only then do you describe how that is reflected in the numbers, and most importantly, the relevance (the ’so what’) of that information for now and in the future. How to tell a relevant story supported by financial information? 10 questions to ask.

  1. What is the purpose of the financial document you are preparing?

  2. For whom are you preparing it for? What decision do they need to make?

  3. What is the current strategy?

  4. How is that different to the previous strategy?

  5. What are they doing to deliver this year’s strategy? What are the key drivers underlying that activity?

  6. What does that indicate about future performance?

  7. How might that influence future activity to meet future performance targets? What other opportunities and levers of performance are available?

  8. What are the sensitivities you need to be aware of when you share this? What does the story imply about individuals’ performance?

  9. What are the numbers behind your answers to #3-7?

  10. How do we package the story and the numbers to get the message across? Spreadsheet and words? Graphs and no words? A combination?

In business partnering, the business wants insight and value. Not numbers. They want the story behind the numbers. The great thing about stories, is that people remember them. So make your conversations count. What conversations are you preparing for now? [1] this takes time, especially for those new to facilitation. A detailed agenda including discussion time is essential for success. [2] What do you do when your data is unreliable?

  • use source information

  • reconcile to a validated or audited figure

  • apply materiality (if there is a reconciling difference)

  • the possible range of error due to unreliability and how you have determined the range

About Alena: Alena works with leaders and their teams to connect technical and leadership skills so they can deliver to deadline without killing their people. She is a mentor, trainer, facilitator and coach. Contact her today on

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