Official and unofficial rules dictate language, etiquette, sportsmanship and all the other ways people communicate in their professional and personal lives. Presenting numbers is no exception.
Randall Bolten says that mastering the rules of presenting numbers is not so different from – and just as important as – mastering the rules of grammar, spelling, diction, sentence structure, and paragraph organization we spend years learning in school.
“The rules and practices that help you present numbers clearly and effectively are similar to the rules and practices that make people effective and eloquent writers and speakers,” the former Silicon Valley executive says. “Unfortunately, very little of your education was probably devoted to developing these skills,” he says.
“You can’t be an effective presenter of numbers if you don’t know how to present them so that people can understand them quickly and get the maximum meaning from them,” Bolton says. “Numbers are just words presented with a different set of characters. In the same way you choose your words carefully and then organize them to have maximum impact, how you present numbers will make a big difference in how well your audience understands and acts upon your message.”
Bolten says: If “you are running a small business, your business’s principal communicator is you. You don’t have the luxury of a staff of skilled, trained communicators generating the documents, reports and other information your business depends on. You also don’t have that kind of staff to help you understand that information, so you need to be clear about the information you want and how you want it to look, he adds.
"A business cannot function without numbers, and without businesspeople who understand those numbers. So being skilled at presenting numbers will make you a more effective and successful small businessperson," Bolten argues.
He offers these key points for small-business owners:
- In any business or profession, communicating clearly and effectively – with customers, suppliers, employees, lenders, investors and lots of other stakeholders – is critical to success.
- The way one communicates sends messages to one’s audience about one’s intelligence, grasp of the subject, professionalism and respect for the audience.
- Information that is presented skillfully and coherently is not only much easier for audiences to understand than information that isn’t, it is also a gesture of respect to your audience that they will remember. This is just as true for numbers as it is for written and spoken words.
- In business, numbers are often a critical part of what you are communicating, whether that’s business results, plans and budgets, pricing, deal structure, project status or any number of other important aspects of your business.
- Like effective writing or speaking, presenting numbers is a communication skill, with rules and best practices much like the grammar, spelling, sentence structure and paragraph organization people spent years learning.
- Presenting numbers is a skill that any literate person can master.
Two of Bolten’s goals are to raise financial and numerical literacy and to put the onus on the presenters of numbers-filled information. “In order for others to comprehend information, it must be communicated to them in…a way that is accurate, clear and meaningful,” Bolten says. “And if the presenter wants to be seen as knowledgeable and trustworthy – and to be taken seriously – he or she needs to present information not just correctly, but in a literate manner. There is also an onus on the audience: understanding numbers is a literacy skill, not a math skill – just as presenting them is – so if the information is presented properly, people in the audience shouldn’t get to say, ‘Oh, I just don’t understand numbers.’ ”
Bolten sums up his thoughts in a new book, Painting With Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You.
Indeed, the book is not about just numbers. “This book is about presenting numbers, and doing it clearly, concisely, elegantly and most of all, effectively,” Bolton says. “This distinction between numbers and presenting numbers is critical.” Moreover, he says, the way one presents says a lot about the way one thinks. “When you present numbers, you expose every aspect of your thought process to your audience, and you want that to be a good thing.”