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

< Intro >

– 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?

– 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.

– 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?

– 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 [Indistinct] 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.

And 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.

– 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.

– Mh-hmm, 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.

– 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?

– They probably start with the chart.

– 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.
– Mh-hmm, yes.

– 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've
used too many filler words,

and if you've used 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.

– 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.

– 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.

– 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.

– 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.

– 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?

– 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 may [Indistinct] 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.

– 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.

– Thank you for inviting me,
that was great, Adam.

< Outro >

– 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
and finance education,

visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.

Creators and Guests

Adam Larson
Adam Larson
Producer and co-host of the Count Me In podcast
Soufyan Hamid
Soufyan Hamid
With more than 15 years of corporate experience, Soufyan is based in Brussels and is a recognized expert who specializes in improving the presentation skills of FP&A teams located worldwide through his online bootcamps and training. After holding executive positions with firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte, he founded SouFBP. His global consulting firm helps finance professionals located anywhere master the delivery of their presentations by improving their preparation, messaging and visuals. Soufyan’s training fills the void in finance training that is often missed for most professionals, and enables them to excel through his proprietary method called “The Financial Storytelling Program.”
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