Ep. 254: Soufyan Hamid - Mastering the Art of Finance Storytelling

March 04, 2024 | 28 Minutes

Welcome to the Count Me In Podcast! In this episode, host Adam Larson invites Soufyan Hamid, a highly experienced finance professional with over 15 years in the industry. Soufyan is also the founder of SouFBP, a global consulting firm that helps finance professionals enhance their presentation delivery. Join Adam and Soufyan as they delve into Soufyan's remarkable journey in the accounting field, from working with top-tier firms to transitioning into corporate finance. They discuss the challenges of effective storytelling in the finance world and the importance of clear communication to effectively convey complex financial data. If you're eager to gain valuable insights into the world of finance and accounting, this episode is a must-listen!

Catch Soufyan live at IMA's European Accounting and Finance Conference in April 2024

Full Transcript:
 < Intro >
Adam:            Welcome back to Count Me In. Where we bring you compelling stories and insights from the world of accounting and finance. In today's episode, we have a fascinating conversation with Soufyan Hamid, an experienced accounting professional with over 15 years of corporate experience. As the founder of SouFBP, a global consulting firm, Soufyan's expertise lies in helping finance professionals, globally, master the delivery of their presentations by improving their preparation, messaging, and visuals.
Soufyan takes us on his remarkable journey, through the accounting field from his early days at a Big Four firm to becoming a finance business partner. We'll hear about practical strategies for becoming a more effective communicator, and how human skills are more vital than ever, in the age of automation. Let's get started.
< Music >
Soufyan, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. We're really excited to have you. I thought we could start off our conversation by, maybe, you could tell us a little about your journey, in the accounting field, and what initially drew you to the profession?
Soufyan:        Well, it's quite easy because this is basically following the leads, that I started following in my studies in business, finance, and economics. And suddenly I realized that I liked the logic of accounting and the logic of finance. How precise it is, how organized it is to know the debits and the credits from one side. It has to be perfectly equal on both sides, so I liked the logic. And when you are in such an orientation, when you are in your studies, well, it goes quite easy because the Big Four are all over you, even before you end your studies.
And, so, in my last year, I directly signed a contract with PwC, and that's how my accounting career started, basically. And, so, I started as an auditor, working for PwC, and I did that during four years. And I liked that journey because it was an accelerated program, to understand better accounting without having to go through all specializations. You're easily brought into the whole picture, into the helicopter view of a P&L, for example, or a balance sheet.
And, so, I didn't have to go through all the transactions like bookkeeping AP, or AR, or cash, to finally become a general accountant. Thanks to that, after two years, I was already working on analytical reviews of the P&L, and working on the full balance sheet. So it was really a second university, I would say, and I love that.
But since I didn't want to become a public accountant for a living, and I didn't want to end up my career like that, I decided to move. And, at that moment, I was still considering myself as a rookie because you understand a lot of things when you work in audit, but you're still somehow in studies.
And, so, I wanted to face the reality of working in a company. But, obviously, at that time, I didn't have any experience working inside a company. So I decided to join Deloitte in temporary work department, with the business process solution department. And they offered us the possibility to work in accounting, but also controlling treasury, all finance fields, as a temp. Meaning that I had assignments of three months, six months, sometimes, one or two years.
And, so, I had the opportunity to continue learning how to work inside of finance department, under the umbrella of Deloitte. And that was really where I discovered what it was to work in finance. And this is also where I discovered my passion for controlling, FP&A, and finance business partnering.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, I think that's amazing. Because many accountants, whether they go the traditional route, starting at a Big Four like you, or they go right into corporate, right into the finance department, or the internal accounting team. They find themselves, eventually, getting to that point where they're looking at those finance, looking at the FP&A side of things, and being that business partner.
And what are some of the main challenges that you find when you get to that point? Or you've been doing all these things and you get to, "Hey, I'm going to be analyzing this complex data and trying to tell the story." When you're trying to convey these things to people, not even in finance. So you're no longer working with auditing teams or working with accounting teams. You're talking to people who don't understand how it all works. What are some of the biggest challenges that you find, when that happens?
Soufyan:        Well, I found these challenges when I started to work as internal for a company. Because when I left Deloitte, after five years, I decided to join a Belgian Telco company, as a finance business partner, and I was really good, technically.
Technically, I was really good. I was one of the few to master financial modeling. I was one of the few to master Excel, visual basics, Power Pivot, everything, that was, somehow, what made me successful at Deloitte. And I was kind of happy, and in finance, everybody was happy because I developed dashboards, I helped them automate many things.
But when I had to compare how I was welcomed by non-finance people, it's another story. Because I was so convinced that my success would go through the technical stuff, that I completely missed the fact that I was working with people, not mastering the same things as me. And I was there, telling them about the many exceptions you found in the data about I don't know which IFRS rule that made an exception to their figures. Another [Inaudible 00:06:05] that I had to reverse this month because it was too old to be there.
And, so, I had a difficult time having a real partnership with them. And since I was supposed to be a finance business partner, that made it tough. So I thought I was right, and I just understood that when you're working inside a company, and that you leave the world of PwC, of Deloitte, of one of the Big Four, and even one of the consulting firms, you don't have that shield.
You don't have that umbrella anymore, to protect you, and to give you the credibility, you need to convince people. So you have to work on your communication, you have to work on those skills, to make sure that the people who do not master finance, will follow you, will just believe you, because it's not because the data just says so, that it's a true story for them. They have their beliefs; they have their bias. There may be, even, rights because they have the contextual information you don't have in the figures.
The day I realized that, was when I presented, once, the monthly results to the CFO, every month, it was the same story. He asked me questions, he was not convinced by what I said. He continued pushing me until my last resources, to make sure to have all the information.
And one day, I think he was pissed, I don't know, he just didn't want to let it pass and just told me, "Soufyan, you're an expert, and you're talking to me like I am an expert. But you're the one living in your models, you're the one living in your data, but the people I will speak to do not live in those models. So you have to make sure to find back the business events that explain what you have in your data because this is the thing they are interested in."
And this is the first time that I heard about the word story, in finance. He just told me, "Make me a story out of this." And at that moment, I just thought it was the Hollywood story. You'll hear that everywhere, and I just thought it was a marketer thing, but I just thought of that as a challenge, and I decided to work on this, on this side of myself, because it was the only thing that got me away from promotions, that got me away from growing inside a company. And, so, I thought, yes, this is the only way to get better at this, and I started to work on this.
Adam:            So let's, maybe, dig into that a little bit more. You said, you mentioned that they said, "You need to tell a better story. You're saying this to me, like the people who are going to hear this, in the end, are going to understand it." What are some of the strategies that you took on to become a better storyteller, and to have that more effective communication?
Well, I was lucky because the company I was working for organized a sort of program to help experts communicating better. And it was a program that was out every two years, and I was lucky to have that, just at that time, and I followed it. And the climax of that program was to give a TED Talk, in front of 100 people, in your company, in a big auditorium, so that was a bit stressing. You had one of these microphone, on your cheek, and it was fun.
But the thing is, it helped me get better at public speaking, better at communication, even getting better, at making a point. But since it was not directed to finance people and to accounting people, it lacked the reality of our day-to-day life. I didn't really find ways to transform my recurring monthly results, into a story that would stick and that would be convincing, that would be interesting for the executive that have the same presentation every month.
So what I did was to take away every learning that I got, and that I could reuse for my day-to-day work. but I tested, adapted, and worked on the methodology myself.
Because at that time, I found nowhere mention of financial storytelling ever. You got those little tips, sometimes, saying, "Yes, don't speak jargon or speak in business language."
But not a concrete methodology that helps you form the analysis until the delivery of the presentation, with a clear structure that you need to follow. And, so, I worked on this, I failed a lot because, obviously, when you try to change things, well, first you are not right in the first time, and even if you think you are right, well, there is some resistance.
So I took the strikes, I took the feedback that I needed to get better at this. And, so, after some years, it went to the point I wanted to go. And in my last years, at Proximus, which is the company I was working for, well, I was recognized as a good presenter, as a storyteller.
People in the business were happy to have me in their staff meetings, while, normally, people were quite happy to avoid it. And they were happy to invite me because they knew that the topic I would present to them was not just another boring finance presentation because I would tweak it the way that they would be interested in it.
And, so, this is how it began, I thought, "Yes, I'm good at this, let's see if there are some results." So I got a promotion, thanks to that, and I became even manager of strategic projects. So it was strategic storytelling about all the projects that we needed to issue. And, so, at that moment, I wondered, "Will I continue like that, or will I work on what made me better? This methodology that I developed."
So I took the challenge, actually, to try to live out of it, and this is why, now, I share this methodology with the finance people. Because, if at that time, I didn't find any help to make better presentation, to give better presentations, I guess that I was not the only one. And today I've shared tips, tricks, opinions on LinkedIn since two years now, and I see that I'm certainly not the only one thinking about that. And, so, that's good to see that you got something that people are interested in, and that makes them want to go further, into that communication path.
Adam:            It's super important. I know we, at IMA, have come up with a course on storytelling for financial professionals. There's been more articles, I've been seeing more research written about it. So the way you tell the story is so important because, as you were saying, you have to stumble through, you have to become a better public speaker.
There are so many things you have to do, but all of those things, it's not just public speaking, but it's also being able to relate those things to, as you were saying, to be able to tell the story better so that people can understand it, and there are failings, there's all that stuff. And, so, you mentioned that you've developed your own unique approach, and maybe you can elaborate a little bit on this methodology you're referring to. Just so people can understand what you're talking about.
Soufyan:        Well, actually, to summarize it, I would say that my methodology, you could call it reverse the narrative. Meaning that, generally, how it works in finance, when you have to make a presentation, where do people start, Adam, in your opinion?
Adam:            They probably start with the chart.
Soufyan:        Yes, they start with the visuals. They start with the slides, and then only if they have time between the lunch and the presentation, they will think about what they will say and how they will say it. What I tell people is that you don't touch your slides until the third steps, and my methodology has four steps.
So the first step would be to first prepare your message; what do you want people to get out with when they are out of the meeting room? So when they are out of the meeting room, they have to remember one sentence that they would have to repeat and that they would have to work on. 
And, so, this is the big message of the presentation, even if it's a monthly result presentation where you have many sub messages, et cetera, no, you need one big message. And the second step would be from that message to structure a story that would be based on an audience, and, generally, in finance we work on the presentation that we would simply duplicate for any audience.
We would present it to the ExCo, we would use the same for the marketing department, and we would use the same for the CFO. And, so, that makes that, obviously, it would not satisfy anybody because if you want to please everybody, you will please nobody.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, yes.
Soufyan:        And, in that case, you would, from getting to understand your audience, determine which approach is better. And to summarize it, I have two or three structures that you can use, and also alternatives, in case, you don't have time because most of the times things don't get the way you wanted them to. You had 30 minutes, finally, you only get five, so you have to be ready for such things. And, then, only when you know what you will say, and how you will say it, then you touch your slides and you prepare your visuals, you prepare your slides.
But, in that case, I would tell people what you refresh every month, with the same structure, is a report. It's not the visuals you will use during your presentation because, generally, those have too much text, too much graphs, too much KPIs, so they would not actually follow the structure of your story.
So keep your reports, send them even before. I think that people really like to have information before but use other visuals, for your presentation. It doesn't have to be a whole deck of 60 slides. Work on five slides that will represent better the key points of your meeting, even if you don't show everything.
And then only, when you worked on your slides, then you prepare yourself by working on rehearsing, working on your body language, working on your public speaking, your voice, and, today, there are really good ways to do so. In the past you had to gather a lot of people to get feedback from them.
But with AI and tools you can get even feedback from ChatGPT, when you speak, and they will tell you if you use too many filler words, and if you use too many times the same word,
or if you stutter, if you hesitate too much, they will help you improve, and that's the beauty of today. And, so, those are the four steps of my approach.
Adam:            I love that. I love that, hey, don't limit yourself to what you have, use the technology that's in front of you. And I was thinking about, as you were talking, a lot of the steps that you're saying are really good information, especially for people who need to become better speakers, have better presentations.
But, also, I was thinking, as technology is changing, as it's moving along, simple things like charts, the CEO or the CFO can just go on the dashboard, with all the new technology that's out there, that's created for everybody, and they can just simply look at the charts, and see what the latest numbers are. That's not what the point of your presentation is, the point of your presentation is something more than that.
Because anybody can just look at the latest numbers because they all have these great technology that's coming out there. They can analyze things, that they can see in their little dashboard that tells a story, but what we're talking about is something more than that because that's what the business partner really needs to be.
Soufyan:        Yes, exactly, and this is where the biggest difference is between a presentation, any presentation, and a finance presentation. The finance presentation, the goal is not to deliver a presentation. The goal is to deliver a story that will trigger a discussion and a decision making.
And, so, you have to be prepared to transform yourself from a presenter to a facilitator, when the time of the discussion has come. Because you will present what, according to you, are the biggest point of the month, for example, or the budget, or the forecast, and then you will present them options.
What do we change?
What do we keep?
Do we try something else to compensate the losses that we had on such a project, et cetera. You don't post yourself as the consultant there because, let's be honest, 80% of the people will not like that finance comes with the ideas instead of them.
So you come with options, just with calculation, and you are there to help them make a decision, by answering questions, by directing the discussion towards where you think you would find the best solutions. But try to be humble at that time because most of the time you're presenting to higher rank people, and we know how humans are, they still have their ego, so you will have to tackle that human aspect in your facilitation.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, yes, that's a huge point. I think it's really interesting, as we talk about this whole conversation that you're having because not everybody wants to hear, "Hey, finance has ideas." But the finance team, the accounting team, is part of the conversation because you can't have a full vision of the whole strategy unless you understand where the money is because you can't do anything without money. And, so, you have to understand where the money is going, where it's coming, where we're looking, where things are going.
And, so, you have to have that conversation, so if you don't have finance as a business partner at your table, at the C-level, there's a problem with how things are running in your organization. And, so, as I'm thinking about this, I'm thinking about our audience, and what advice would you give to somebody, they've probably been doing this for a while, they're in their team, but they feel like they're not getting anywhere. How can they move to that next step of being that partner, being that storyteller? And, so, that way they can be more effective and help their organizations.
Soufyan:        Well, I will just tell you how I did, and maybe people will find some inspiration in that. Obviously, when I started to work on my presentations, I did not get to the ExCo directly, it's generally reserved to the CFO or to the finance director, so I just worked on my level. If the management committee has someone from finance, I would go in the team below. And, so, if the product director had another finance business partner, I would go to the level below.
And, so, I started to give presentations to the staff meetings of my direct business partner. So it wasn't a big audience, there were people less involved in finance, but people also I had the opportunity to work with, on a daily basis, because I worked with them on business cases. I worked with them during the forecast and the budget process.
So I started there, and it's, generally, a safer space to work on your storytelling skills. You try once and then you humbly ask for feedback, or, generally, you will see the feedback directly, if they are typing their emails during the presentation, you understand you are not that captivating, as you thought, but that's my advice. I don't think that any team in a company would refuse to have someone presenting them the financials. It's just that you have to take it as the opportunity to become a business partner, and whoever it is, whatever it is, you have an opportunity to do so. 
Even in accounting, even in treasury, there are possibilities to make it interesting for them. And, so, you always have a sort of business equivalent, at your level, that you can use as sparring partner to get better at storytelling and communication. And only after the spread of words will start and you will become interesting for people because it doesn't happen that often that people share financial information in another way, than simply reporting the P&L, the cash flow, and the balance sheet.
And, so, you will most probably get a promotion, I did. Some of my students got a promotion, some months after having followed my course. And when you get promotion, well, you will have higher possibilities to present. Another way is also to work on deep dives, this doesn't happen often. So take a topic you are, especially, good at, make a deep dive analysis where you find good conclusions, and you can make a roadshow of that work. It happens, and if you ask, because nobody asks, but if you ask, people will be happy to have you in their staff meeting.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, I love that. I love that start presenting where you are, use that as a moment. You don't have to wait till you get to the CFO level to say, "I'm going to be the business partner now." Practice it where you are, at the level you are, and I think that's wonderful advice.
And, so, as we're wrapping up the conversation, I think about the future of accounting. We've got AI, we've got things changing all around the place. What are some ways that we can practically prepare for that, as we move into that, as the accounting team, and as we want to be better business partners? And we're already just talking about the advice you just gave. But what are some other things we can think about, especially as we look to the future?
Soufyan:        Well, the first that I had to work on was simply the fact of remote working, we're working from home, and so presenting from home. It makes a huge difference in terms of engagement, in terms of connection with the people, and as a consequence, in terms of interest, in the finance presentation.
So embracing that technology was also facing a lot of challenges because I'm a quite expressive guy, I need my hands, I need to move all around. I need to look at people. I have a big smile, so, generally, it's what attracts the people to listen to me. But when you are working in a Zoom call or a Teams call, your face is, basically, a small square on the right side of your screen, and you have a big slide.
And, so, this is where you really have to think about what you are going to put in your slides. If you put too much information, people are reading, and if they are reading, they will directly say, "This might have been a [Inaudible 00:24:39] for me. What am I doing in that meeting?" And, so, they mute their microphone and they start working on something else and then you don't get them anymore. So this is a big challenge that you have to work on, and there are techniques to do so. 
Playing on the body language that you have, stopping to project your slides directly so that they see changes in the screen, that make sure that their attention is captivated. But, of course, it's a question also of being engaging and having a good way of speaking, there your public speaking skills would be of paramount importance. And the second thing about technology is, today many of the things we were doing in the past, and we are still doing today, will be replaced, will be done by automation, will be done by artificial intelligence, so we need to stay relevant.
And, today, one of the biggest skills that we have to make sure we are relevant compared to any AI, any automation, is communication, it's what makes us human, it's what makes us interesting. To find the contextual information that your ERP system won't find, your EPM system won't find, talk to people, become a business partner, you have a business acumen that the machines won't have, and transform it back to a communication that will stick, and that will make you different from the machines.
I speak like it's a horror movie or Sci-Fi new movie, but it's there, the reality is there. I'm not kidding, today I saw an artificial intelligence that was capable of reproducing a whole website from a simple picture, so that means that web developers will be irrelevant within six months or one year, and for us it will come sooner than we expect.
Analyzing figures, I already injected a whole data set in ChatGPT, it found a lot of the insights I wanted to find, but of course it lacked the contextual information. So there is your opportunity to become a relevant point of contact in your company.
Adam:            Mh-hmm, well, I just want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast. The information you shared, just your insights, and your story, I think will really help our listeners, and just thank you so much for coming on, again.
Soufyan:        Thank you for inviting me, that was great, Adam. 
 < Outro > 
Announcer:    This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast, providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders, from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for more relevant accounting in finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imainet.org.