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Quality Decks 101 - Communicating Your Budget

Last week, the article in our budget series covered selling your completed budget. In it, we suggested that you create a roadshow deck to communicate the budget goals broadly in your organization. Taking the time for this process builds support and ownership. This week, I am going to provide some pointers on developing a quality deck. These suggestions work for any communication topic, not just budgets. They are a culmination of over thirty years of experience leading Financial Planning and Analysis for large companies where I sometimes described my role as “another day, another deck.”

One quick reminder before we dig in. A complete budget deck will have more detail than an investor report or board presentation. I treated the budget deck as my bible. It was handy to have a budgeted headcount chart at my fingertips. Naturally, when you present your budget to the board, you will use only a subset of the slides.

1. Set standards. One of the first things that I did when joining a new organization was to make sure that there were standards for presenting and organizing a pitch page. These standards should be very precise for structure, fonts, and color. Having pages identical in structure made it easy to combine pages from several different decks without rework. Be ruthless with your enforcement of these standards. Your team will quickly realize it is less work in the long run.

2. Have an executive summary. The first page of your deck should be a standalone executive summary. If a reader has only two minutes, this one page should make them conversational about your budget. Include only the key highlights and major takeaways both positive and negative.

3. Use a three-layer framework. Face it, not everyone is going to pre-read your presentation in detail. Layer one – each page should have a lead-in and takeaway. If a board member does nothing but read those two sentences on each page, they have a basic command of the challenge ahead. The next layer consists of circles and arrows highlighting key variances with concise explanations. And the third layer is all the detail. Your job is to make the information accessible to as many people as possible, including those who are short on time. Don’t turn your readers into analysts.

4. Work from the big picture down to the detail. The first slide of a deck should set the stage. Start with the big picture, exogenous factors such as interest rates and anticipated economic growth. Move on to full P&L and balance sheet analysis. Then dig deeper into revenue and expenses. Finally, cover sensitivities, risks, and opportunities.

5. One page, one key message. Don’t overload every page with detail. If you start running out of space on a page, you are probably including too many concepts. Thin it out.

6. Put the details in an appendix. Use your appendix wisely. No one wants to go through table after table of line-by-line detail. Your job is to analyze and summarize. A word of caution: requiring every reader to make their own conclusions from a mountain of detail is a very dangerous game.

7. Find a good proofreader. Every team has one. Find that person who can pick up a page and, at a glance, find a typo or extra space in a sentence. Use them as a final review.

8. Allow enough time for about five turns. Quality decks don’t come together overnight. Analysis takes time and many brains, make sure to bake this time into your budget calendar. I like to allow at least one full day per turn of the deck.

9. Rehearse in front of your team. I learned this late in my career and wish I had done it much sooner. If you are presenting to a large group or the board, have one of your final rehearsals with your own team. They know the data better than you do because they have been staring at it for weeks. Be open to advice on how to phrase key points and which items to highlight.

10. Take ten deep breaths. This is a meditation technique that takes about two minutes. Just before it is your turn to present to a live audience, take ten slow and deep breaths. It calms your nervous system. It always worked for me no matter how high the stakes.

It is a great feeling to finalize your budget and have it documented in a quality presentation. Distribution to those with a need to know should naturally be electronic. I however found it helpful to have a bound hard copy on my desk because I don’t have a great memory for tons of detail. If the CEO made a surprise phone call to discuss business performance, I would quietly grab my budget deck. When asked the question ‘what is next quarter’s expense target for the commercial business?’ I could answer quickly with confidence.

It was also nice to look over at my desk as I turned out the office light for the evening and see the budget in its final form. I always had a moment of pride, “Thank goodness the budget is complete and no one got hurt.”

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