How to present financial data in corporate and managerial finance?

It is a cliché in the business intelligence world that senior decision-makers want “actionable information”. Of course they do. But what does that mean? How can you present financial data in a way that results in useful insights?

5 tips for how to present financial data

The good news is that there are people who have devoted decades to studying these questions. And the even better news is that technology is making it easier than ever to implement what they’ve found out.

So here are five tips for how to present financial data:

  1. Be consistent: Adopt a clear set of rules for how you want to present your data. Doing things the same way from one period to the next will make it easy for your audience to understand what they’re seeing. Avoid misrepresenting data by using inconsistent or misleading scaling, for example. Following an established communication standard, such as IBCS, is a simple and effective way to do this.
  2. Tell a story: Getting the message across is key. This means highlighting the important elements of your data and presenting information in a way that follows a storyline. Show what has changed in the data and provide explanations or suggestions for why it has changed. 
  3. Visualise: Choosing the right visualisations can make all the difference. Too often, dashboards are populated with inappropriate charts and tables that do a poor job of visualising the underlying data. An actionable visualisation focuses on the message — should the chart show a comparison between data points, contributions to a total, variance?
  4. Simplify: Get rid of clutter and distractions. Multi-coloured charts with shadow effects, logos and backgrounds don’t help to get the message across any better. The IBCS standard, for example, favours monochrome charts that only use colour to highlight changes — this is where the focus should be. Stripping away noise and redundancies is a much more powerful way to show off data.
  5. Condense: Removing distractions doesn’t mean removing information. Good visualisations are information-rich, but presented in a way that is clear, truthful and insightful. A standardised approach can help reduce the clutter by conveying information through simple design cues. For example, one common technique is to use solid columns for actual data, hatched patterns for forecasts and outlines for plans — no legends or unnecessary labels necessary.

There is a lot of complexity and nuance behind each of these points. The reality is that preparing financial information that is clear, consistent and insightful across a large organisation is a major challenge. Just a few years ago it was basically impossible. But the situation has changed radically during the past few years.

Today, software like Zebra BI can quickly and easily turn your data into actionable reports with visualisations that are validated to comply with IBCS standards.

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A guide into comparing solutions for financial data presentation

Once you know you need a solution for the presentation of your financial data, you could either develop a solution yourself or lease a solution by a software party. In this comparison sheet, you’ll discover the considerations when looking to make or buy a solution.