Making numbers make sense

How do you get people who aren’t accountants to understand and care about numbers? Or improve their financial knowledge? Turns out this is a challenge not just in clear writing for the public. It’s also a concern in getting more employees to engage with corporate results and financial reports.

The problem has its roots in the financial literacy of the entire country. The 2014 Financial Capability Survey of Canadian adults showed:

  • Few considered themselves “very knowledgeable” financially. One in 20 women considered themselves “very knowledgeable” compared with almost one in 10 men.
  • Many Canadians barely passed a financial quiz with 14 questions. Almost one-third failed, correctly answering 7 questions or less. The questions related to topics such as inflation, debt repayment, banking fees and credit reports.

So, if your intended reader is not someone with an accounting or financial background, how do you help? Here are 5 great tips I’ve learned from working with Chief Financial Officers, Board Secretaries and experts on economic education.

1. Focus on why the numbers matter to your reader. From a clear writing perspective, the principle of relevance is always a good place to start. How will these numbers help your readers? What’s going to get their attention? How will they use this information? To perform an action? Make a decision? Think it through a provide only the numbers they truly want and need to know. And if you have more than one distinct reader avatar, tailor your approach for each one.

2. Get rid of unnecessary jargon. Financial terms can be intimidating and off-putting for people who don’t live and breathe them every day. So, if you need to use a technical term, provide a plain language definition. Examples can also illuminate the meaning of abstract financial concepts.

3. Tell a story. Readers often want the story behind the numbers. For example, what are the highlights in a financial statement and why are they important? What story do they tell – in plain language? Sometimes the trend over time is more important than the specific numbers. If so, simplify the story to bring the key points forward.

4. Instead of numbers, use images. Graphs and dashboards can provide a quick visual on key performance indicators. Use a simple colour code that’s easy for everyone to follow: for example, red for high alert, yellow for monitor and green for good.

5. Be consistent. Use the same terms and the same metrics every time. Don’t talk about return on people one week and return on resources the next. Your readers will build up familiarity over time as you repeat terms and concepts. And familiarity, in turn, builds confidence and trust.

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