FP&A Data Visualisation: Showcase Your Critical Thinking Skills!

By Randall Bolten, longtime Silicon Valley CFO, author of "Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You” and adjunct professor at U.C. Berkeley Extension

On one point, there is no argument: You will be considered a great FP&A professional only if you can communicate clearly, effectively, and eloquently. 

Regardless of what you’re communicating, your audience will form opinions about the content of your information – and about you personally – from what you present, how you present it, and how you behave while you’re presenting. They’ll form opinions about your intelligence, your professionalism, your grasp of the subject matter, your respect for your audience, your work ethic, your integrity, and your honesty. And those opinions are intertwined: the credibility of your content affects your credibility as a professional, and vice versa.

The fact that you’re communicating numbers doesn’t change anything – in fact, you face even more presentation choices than you do when presenting words. The most basic of those choices is whether a use a table or a graph. To make that choice intelligently, it’s critical that you answer each of these four questions, and in the following order:

  • Which is the most effective way to impart your key information – a table or a graph?
  • What is the best way to present the information graphically?
  • What changes and additions to the graph will help your audience understand its central messages quickly and accurately? Will visual effects that “beautify” the graph help or hurt that objective?
  • Is there anything about your graph that might cause your audience to question your agenda or even your honesty?

Since we’ve looked at each one of these questions in detail (click here for Q#1, Q#2, Q#3, and Q#4), we won’t elaborate here; instead, I’ll offer a few closing thoughts: 

  • Graphs can only make one or two points at a time. Graphs take up much more space than a well-laid-out table does to present the same number of data points, and in a less visually coherent way than a table. Don’t try to cram too much information into a single graph. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but two pictures superimposed on each other won’t create something worth two thousand words – it’ll just be a jumbled mess. And dozens of little graphs, in an array that looks like the cockpit of a 747, are just as intimidating and hard to follow as a large table.
  • Don’t let audience preferences drive your choice. We’ve all heard statements like, “I’m a visual person – just give me some graphs,” or “I love waterfall charts.” Yes, there are differences in cognitive abilities from one person to another, but those differences aren’t nearly as dramatic as you might think. Make presentation choices based on the most effective way to get your point across, not on what people in your audience think they want.
  • There are alternatives to graphs. Graphs aren’t the only impactful way to get your point across. Key indicators – ratios that identify critical drivers, and that add meaning and context to the raw numbers – presented in a table can be just as effective. And “data visualization” can apply to tables as well: use text effects (e.g., boldface, italics, font size) and artwork (e.g., cell borders, changes to row height and column width, and Inserted Shapes) to emphasize the most important data. Or use Conditional Formatting to emphasize particularly large, small, or otherwise noteworthy numbers. And lastly, how about leaving space on your tables for some clarifying words?

The bottom line: If you’re an FP&A professional responsible for producing a regular periodic reporting package – such as monthly, quarterly, or yearly – consider using tables for the basic information that everyone is expecting. Use graphs sparingly, to make your most important points, and only when those points lend themselves to a visual presentation.

Obviously, the most important goal of almost all numbers presentations is to inform your audience.  But every good FP&A professional should have another, more selfish goal: to showcase your critical thinking skills. If you keep both goals in mind, achieving each will make the other more likely.

The article was first published in prevero Blog

RANDALL BOLTEN grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a CIA intelligence officer and a history professor. He is passionate about the importance of presenting financials and other numerical information in a cogent and effective way, and in his current life is the author of Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

He is a seasoned financial executive, with many years directing the financial and other operations of high-technology companies. His experience includes nearly twenty years as a chief financial officer of software companies.

He has held the CFO position at public companies BroadVision and Phoenix Technologies, and at private companies including Arcot Systems, BioCAD, and Teknekron. Before his CFO positions, he held senior financial management positions at Oracle and Tandem Computers.

He received his AB from Princeton University, headed west to earn an MBA at Stanford University, and ended up staying in Silicon Valley. 

In addition to writing Painting with Numbers, he currently operates Lucidity, a consulting and executive coaching practice focused on organizing and presenting complex financial information. He divides his work time between Glenbrook, NV and Washington, DC, and maintains an office in Menlo Park, CA.