Presentation skills: win them over

Having worked your way up the ranks to become finance director, you can rest
assured that your number-crunching abilities are up to the mark.

Yet having a way with figures isn’t the only skill that is vital for career
success. Communication skills, and the ability to deliver a punchy presentation,
become increasingly vital in a managerial role and need to be honed and
developed to ensure success.

Taken to its extreme, an FD could even find that they need to demonstrate
these skills to an entirely unknown audience, in the event of their company
becoming an attractive acquisition target. While the markets may have been
unsteady over the summer, M&A activity has been significant over the course
of the year, at £42.7trillion for the six months June 2007, according to

Assuming that financial skills alone will win through and that softer skills
such as communications are not important is complacent. The ability to
communicate is fundamental: if directors and managers are unable to promote
their businesses, or engage with customers, staff or other stakeholders, the
business will suffer.

Effective communication skills are vital because they affect the bottom line.
Even directors with a wealth of experience in presenting to clients and
prospects could do well to develop their skills. Indeed, FDs, just like other
directors, spend much of their time communicating with and leading others. While
often promoted for technical expertise, as FDs, they often use those skills less
and their communications skills more.

Many FDs find the thought of working on communications daunting. It needn’t
be. Acknowledging that communication skills need to be honed, or even developed
from scratch, is the first hurdle. Next, there are ways to develop the softer
skills necessary to achieve success. Everyone can be trained to ensure they
present well to clients, network and forge lasting business relationships.

When FTSE 100 food and support services business Compass Group was looking to
establish its Swiss subsidiary Selecta as an attractive acquisition target,
Selecta’s management team had to upgrade its presentation skills rapidly. CEO
Justin Tydeman was called upon to lead a team presenting to an audience of
potential buyers, largely from private equity.

While the management team had experience in selling Selecta’s services by
presenting to clients, when selling the division itself, they recognised that
this presented a wholly new challenge: making an unusual presentation, to an
unknown audience, in a foreign country, in a language that was not the mother
tongue for several of the team. I worked with them to prepare for their
presentation to a private equity audience ­ and having worked on and delivered
their presentation, the company secured an attractive sale, netting proceeds of
£772m for its parent.

This example illustrates just how critical effective communication can be to
a company’s finances. Indeed Andy Martin, group finance director at Compass,
remarked that the presentation skills training was an ‘essential contributor’ to
the sale process. The Selecta team’s experience indicates the importance of
recognising that your management team may not possess the communication skills
to ensure their business’s success, but that these skills can be developed, even
within a short time period.

When preparing for a presentation, there are several things to consider.
Firstly, you need to know your audience. Consider, for example, how the
interests of internal and external audiences differ. Make sure your presentation
is tailored to the needs of the audience ­ it is always worthwhile to spend time
identifying the common ground you and they share. Having done this, you are in a
position to tell the audience what you want to convey, but as a message to which
they will listen.

Set aside enough time to rehearse the presentation. In a team presentation,
pay attention to the role of each individual, identifying their strengths and
ways for them to improve. Colleagues or outside advisors can give constructive
feedback on how to make the presentation clearer, more relevant and more
persuasive. Outside advice can be especially beneficial if the presentation
involves a new audience or is a departure from the more routine financial
reporting you may already have mastered.

Having spent time rehearsing, don’t shy away from making extensive changes to
the content of the presentation. If the presentation evolves during rehearsals,
this should be taken as a positive, providing it retains its key messages.

When it comes to delivering the presentation there are some final
considerations. Having tailored it to your audience and refined it during
rehearsals, you can be confident about the content. Make sure this confidence is
communicated to the audience. Positive body language and a professional
appearance are vital to successful delivery. Avoid speaking over or interrupting
members of your team in order to convey a strong and cohesive team identity.

The task faced by the Selecta management team, of presenting themselves and
their company to potential acquirers, may not be an every day occurrence. It is
nevertheless one that many finance directors will face at some stage in their
career. Moreover, in today’s markets there is an ever greater focus on how
companies communicate with their investors. Finance directors are at the
forefront of this. The ability to master communication, as much as technical
accounting skills, will increasingly be a key factor in career success.

Sell yourself

• Don’t underestimate ‘soft’ skills: while everyone is recognised and
promoted on the basis of the skills relating to their particular job, don’t be
fooled — perceived ‘softer’ skills are increasingly essential with seniority

• Do your homework: treat every presentation and meeting as an important
business opportunity Ð ask yourself what do you want to achieve?

• Win over your audience: always make sure you give yourself and your
business a clear, interesting introduction in the first 30 seconds

• Stay positive: a smile works wonders, as does a firm handshake and
confident eye-contact and without exceptions never complain about aspects of
your job

• Don’t overrun: think about how you feel when someone else’s presentation
stretches beyond its allotted slot. Know when to stop and when to move on

Professor Khalid Aziz is founder and chairman of
executive communications coaching firm The Aziz Corporation

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