Date posted: 23/01/2020 5 min read

The art of storytelling (for finance people)

If you want an audience to remember your presentation, use some storytelling tips from Aristotle.

In Brief

  • Creating a story is the most effective way to engage an audience.
  • Aristotle outlined three dimensions of storytelling: ethos [ethical appeal], logos [rational appeal] and pathos [emotional appeal].
  • Bringing real life examples and a little emotion to a story makes it easier for people to remember facts.

As finance people we tend to be fact-based individuals, objective in nature. To us, stories sound like things people make up when they don’t have the facts.

So why tell stories when we do have the facts? It’s because storytelling takes pieces of information and joins them together in a way that either influences (or entertains) the audience. 

‘How to tell a story’ is becoming an increasingly popular topic for finance business partners. Telling someone about a new internal control that needs to be implemented “because it reduces risk” is not the most engaging way to ensure it is adopted.

Crafting a story about what happens when we do and don’t, however, can help that new control be more easily digested and adopted. And isn’t that the ultimate objective?

So, how do we do this? How can we tell better stories and provide better insights about the information we have at our disposal?

Aristotle’s three tools for storytelling

Aristotle’s Modes of Persuasion offers a great framework to guide a finance person into storytelling.

Aristotle defined three dimensions to storytelling: ethos [ethical appeal], logos [rational appeal] and pathos [emotional appeal]. If you hit these three dimensions you will engage your audience and it’s more likely they’ll remember your presentation.

Ethos: This links to the credibility of the person telling the story. Storytellers must convince their audience that they have the authority or are qualified to speak on the topic. This is fairly straightforward for a finance person talking numbers in an organisation: you have been asked to do it because you are the expert.

Logos: This is the ability to bring in facts to support your story. That’s often a strength for finance professionals. We tend to rely on tables, graphs, facts or data sets to support every presentation we do. But remember, one visual per page is enough – you don’t need a dashboard of six items.

Pathos: This is about bringing emotion to your story – it’s something finance people don’t spend a lot of time on, but should. Building emotion into your presentations will help move you from providing information to bringing insights and influencing people. If you are able to emotionally connect your audience to your story, they are more likely to remember it. And if they are more likely to remember it, they are more likely to action it.

“Building emotion into your presentations will help move you from providing information to bringing insights and influencing people.”
Andrew Jepson CA

Storytelling needs emotion

In our workshops at The Finance Business Partner, we show candidates the difference between a fact-based presentation and emotive storytelling.

One example I used recently was Pan Am [Pan American World Airways]. Decreasing passenger numbers and high fuel costs led to Pan Am’s demise in the early 1990s. “But wow, that’s boring,” I say. I can see the audience’s eyes glaze over when I put this up on the screen as dot points.

Then I tell the story again. This time, I include the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in Scotland in December 1988. The bomb and resulting crash killed all 259 people on board and another 11 in the town below. I use analogy to describe the impact the bomb had on the plane. I build in characters from Lockerbie.

I talk about the sudden rise in fuel prices that came after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. I use the power of voice – whispering at crucial moments, speaking louder at others, adding pauses, asking questions – to keep the audience engaged.

And I use visuals – pictures of the Lockerbie crash site, a photo of Saddam Hussein – to capture the emotion of the drivers that finished off Pan Am.

At the end of the story everyone remembers the specifics: 243 passengers, 16 crew and 11 townspeople died that day. They remember Pan Am filed for bankruptcy on 8 January 1990 and they remember the reasons for it.

Nobody remembers the page with the dot points.

Bring numbers and finances to life

A story that grabs your attention (activates cortisol), creates empathy (activates oxytocin), has specifics, uses metaphor, repetition and volume of voice will help to reinforce your point, and be more likely to be remembered by your audience.

As challenging as storytelling can be for a finance person, if you can apply pathos to your storytelling, you will create an emotional connection to the audience and bring the numbers and the finances to life. 

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