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Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You

ISBN: 978-1-118-17257-5
352 pages
April 2012
Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You (1118172574) cover image


Learn how to communicate better with numbers

Whether you are distributing a report or giving a presentation, you have a lot of numbers to present and only a few minutes to get your point across. Your audience is busy and has a short attention span. Don't let an amateur presentation bog you down, confuse your audience, and damage your credibility. Instead, learn how to present numerical information effectively—in the same way you learned how to speak or write. With Painting with Numbers, you'll discover how to present numbers clearly and effectively so your ideas and your presentation shine.

  • Use the Arabic numeral system to your advantage master the use of layout and visual effects to communicate powerfully
  • Understand how audiences process your information and how that affects your "personal brand image"
  • Learn how to be perceived as a professional who truly understands the business concepts and issues underlying your numbers
  • Use software tools, including Excel, PowerPoint, and graphs, efficiently and to drive home your point

Author Randall Bolten shares his decades of experience as a senior finance executive distilling complicated information into clear presentations, to help you make your numerical information more comprehensible, meaningful, and accessible. Painting with Numbers is brimming with hands-on advice, techniques, tools, rules, and guidelines for producing clear, attractive, and effective quantation (the word the author has coined for the skill of presenting numbers).

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Table of Contents

Foreword xiii

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xvii

introdUCtion This book Is Not About Numbers—Honest! 1

Being “Literate” 2

It’s What They Think That Matters 2

What You Were Never Taught 3

The Ultimate Goal 5

Some Notes about Reading This Book 5

Part I the rules 11

Chapter 1 Numerals Matter 13

Lining Up the Numbers 14

The Units of Measure 16

Precision 17

Negative Numbers: What Do They Mean? 20

Chapter 2 Looks Matter 25

The Tabula Rasa Decision 26

The “Where’s Waldo?” Effect 27

White Space Is Your Friend 29

But White Space Is Not Always Your Friend 30

Time and Other Dimensions: Across or Down? 33

Borders, Shading, and Other Visual Effects 35

Comments and Artwork 41

The “Ransom Note” Effect 43

Two Truly Helpful Hints 44

Chapter 3 Words Matter 47

Mean What You Say and Say What You Mean 48

Choosing between Precision and Presentability 52

Treating Words Like Numbers  55

Remember the Title. Please 57

Chapter 4 Your Audience Matters   61

The Right Amount of Data   62

Appropriate Emphasis on Critical Information 64

Consistency  67

Meaningful and Relevant Numbers  69

Respect for Your Audience’s Time  73

Wrap-Up for Part I: The Rules  77

Part II The Tools 81

Chapter 5 You Can Pay Me Now   83

The Instant Payoff Tips  85

Instant Payoff Tip #1: Set Up Templates and Styles  85

Instant Payoff Tip #2: Customize Your Toolbar  86

Instant Payoff Tip #3: Learn Some Shortcut Keys  87

Instant Payoff Tip #4: Use Consistent Formats  89

Instant Payoff Tip #5: Learn to Use Excel as a Database  90

Instant Payoff Tip #6: Learn to Use the Lookup & Reference Functions  94

Instant Payoff Tip #7: Organize Data for Easy Computation  95

Instant Payoff Tip #8: Learn to Use Automated Help  98

Instant Payoff Tip #9: Don’t Learn Too Many Ways to Do the Same Thing  99

Chapter 6 . . . Or Pay Me Later 103

The Long-Term Payoff Tips  104

Long-Term Payoff Tip #1: Use Sensible, Intelligent Filenames and Folder Organization  104

Long-Term Payoff Tip #2: Use Consistent Formats 106

Long-Term Payoff Tip #3: Design Intelligent, Intelligible Formulas  106

Long-Term Payoff Tip #4: Use Named Ranges  110

Long-Term Payoff Tip #5: Use Named Formulas or Macros 112

Long-Term Payoff Tip #6: Links: A Force That Can Be Used for Good or Evil  117

Long-Term Payoff Tip #7: Make Different Types of Cells Visually Distinguishable and Physically Separate  118

Long-Term Payoff Tip #8: Document Your Work!  120

Long-Term Payoff Tip #9: Check Your Work!  121

Long-Term Payoff Tip #10: Avoid Cool New Features  122

Chapter 7 Graphs: The “Cartoons” of Numbers   125

Why Do People Use Graphs?  126

Help Your Audience 127

First, Do No Harm 138

Chapter 8 The Pitfalls of Presentations and PowerPoint

 153Why Do People Make Fun of Business Presentations?  154

Real Estate Is a Scarce and Precious Commodity  154

Help Your Audience  156

First, Do No Harm  161

Some Basic Truths That Go Double for Quantation  162

Wrap-Up for Part II: The Tools  166

Part III Real Mastery   169

Chapter 9 It’s Clear, but Is It Meaningful?   171

The War of the Adjectives  171

A Quantation Professional  173

Relating to Your Audience in a Constructive Way  174

Chapter 10 53 . . . Uh, Is That a Lot?   179

What Is a Key Indicator?  180

What Makes a Good Key Indicator?   183

A Simple Example  185

How Do You Present Key Indicators Effectively?  185

A Note on Precision  190

A Note on Dashboards  191

Chapter 11 The One Report Every Organization Needs   197

A Sample Natural P&L, and What Makes It a Good One  199

1. One Page!  200

2. Decision-Focused Line Items  200

3. Appropriate Dollar Amounts, neither Too Big nor Too Small  204

4. Intuitive Organization of the Line Items 205

5. Understandable Categories, Meaningful to All Users  208

6. Plain-English Terminology  208

7. Consistent Look-and-Feel  209

8. Key Results Equal to the Corresponding Numbers in the Accounting System (or an Explanation Why Not)  209

Mapping the Chart of Accounts  211

Generate a Natural P&L from a Spreadsheet, or from the Accounting System? 212

Now Let’s Talk about the Columns  213

Appendix 11A a Sermon to the Accounting Purists   219

Chapter 12 The Gaps in GAAP   225

Rules-Based versus Principles-Based  226

Where Is All This Headed?  227

“Expensing” Stock Options  228

Software Revenue Recognition  230

Tying GAAP to Internal Management Reports 232

Appendix 12A Some Notes on GAAP   235

What Is GAAP?  235

Stock Options  236

Revenue Recognition  237

Chapter 13 Quantation: It’s Not Just for Business Anymore   239

One Taxpayer at a Time  240

All the Taxpayers at Once  243

What’s Really Going on Here?   249

Chapter 14 Quantation in Ordinary Life   255

Models  255

The Meaning of Words  260

That Quiz I Promised  263

Part IV Wrap-Up   269

Chapter 15 Speaking Truth to Power   271

My “Tell the Truth” Syllogism  272

Reason #1 for Telling the Truth: It’s the Right Thing to Do  272

Reason #2: It’s in Your Employer’s Interest  272

Reason #3: It’s in Your Interest   273

Reason #4: You Will Get Caught  273

Reason #5: It’s the “Gotcha” of This Book  275

Don’t Be So Smug, You Civil Servants and Elected Officials!  276

Your Audience Has a Role, Too  276

Chapter 16 Now, What’s the First Thing You Do?   281

My Last, Best Tip  282

It’s Just a Skill  282

Where We Have Been  283

Appendix Jazz Meets Theology   287

Revisitation  288

The Sins of Presentation  289

The Sins of Behavior 297

The Deadliest Sin of All 301

About the Author 305

Index   307

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Author Information

RANDALL BOLTEN operates a consulting practice focused on financial management and information presentation. He is a seasoned and accomplished finance executive, with thirty years of experience in high-growth and high-potential Silicon Valley companies. His professional passion is presenting information that can enable managers, investors, and the general public to make real sense of complicated situations. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Stanford University.

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Painting with Numbers does an excellent job of covering all the topics that go into effectively communicating with numbers. Bolten’s style of writing is engaging, entertaining, and, most important, effective at delivering his message. This book hasn’t only become a key reference on my bookshelf, but I also now have a comprehensive, textbook-style reference to use when I mentor others on communicating effectively with numbers." (Bill Boehman, CMA, CPA, Strategic Finance Magazine, January 2013)

"There actually are quite a lot of annoying things that accountants and analysts do with spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. By the time I finished the first section of the book, I had thought of five or six experienced accountants at clients or companies I am investigating to whom I would like to give this book." (The Value Examiner, Sept/Oct 2012)

"If you're doing investment pitches, you should read this book. If you're doing a pitch I'm going to see, I want you to have read this book. And if you're a startup CFO, finance lead, bean counter, or presentation slide deck preparer, then you should read this book." (Gust.com, June 2012)

"Do you want to tell a story with numbers? If so, I recommend you run, don't walk, to buy this book." (Life Insurance Selling Magazine, June 2012)

Praise for Painting with Numbers


"I highly recommend the very accessible and process based book Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You by Randall Bolten, to anyone in business, public policy making, analysis, science, or any occupation or profession who works with numbers and must present that data to an audience. This book will improve your numeric and overall presentation skills, boost your career, and create a more successful business."
Wayne Hurlbert, Blog Business World

"Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You [is] a book that will help you overcome the stigma of presenting numbers and allow you to give more effective presentations involving numbers.... For those in the financial world, Bolten's book is perfect if you're looking to give more successful presentations. It's as simple as that. You will be doing yourself – and your career – a huge favor."
David Domzalski, FinancialBin.com

"Painting with Numbers, by Randall Bolten [is] the best book I've seen on how to present numbers with skill. Randall was a CFO for twenty years in Silicon Valley, so he's got the benefit of seeing all the various ways, shapes, and sizes that people throw numbers around.  He's exactly the right person to learn from when it comes to seeing through the numbers, knowing what they mean, and knowing how to present them more effectively to speak the truth, and to make better decisions ... in work and in life.

It's a book I'm going to recommend to the people I mentor to help them advance their careers and take their game to the next level."
J.D. Meier, MSDN Blogs


"I've seen Randy Bolten's presentation about his book, Painting with Numbers(Wiley 2012) twice. Randy focuses on communicating numerical data. As a former CFO in the semiconductor industry, he has faced many a room full of high-level executives, and he has seen many a financial presentation -- some clear, many not so clear. His precepts are down-to-earth tips that anyone can learn to use. Simple, but not trivial. They fit into the half-hour between generating the numbers and publishing the report."
Richard Mateosian, STC Fellow (Society for Technical Communication)

"Randall's relaxed and personable presentation style made it easy to connect with the audience. He brought the definition of "quantation" to life with useful examples of how we, as professional communicators, can more clearly present financial information. I've seen enough bad presentations in my career to know that this information will be helpful to many."
David Gennarelli, Director, Investor Relations, Autodesk, Inc., and President, SF chapter of NIRI (National Investor Relations Institute)

"Great presentation! Randall is an engaging and hugely knowledgeable speaker, who gave us a much-needed wake-up call about the importance of mastering financial communication. Not only was it useful, but thanks to Randall's humor and warmth, everyone enjoyed the ride. I highly recommend him!"
Rikke Jorgensen, VP Programs & Professional Development, International Association of Business Communicators, San Francisco chapter

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Press Release

April 10, 2012
Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You

Presenting numbers is nothing more than a communication skill, much like writing or speaking.  All too often this concept is lost, and frequently with unfortunate consequences, because of presenters who focus only on whether their information is correct and not on whether it’s comprehensible or meaningful to an audience.  The lack of understanding between presenter and audience is compounded by audiences who don’t speak up because they presume their lack of comprehension is because they “just don’t get numbers.”  Written in a conversational style that is both highly informative and a fun read, this new book is the first one to treat quantation – the word coined by the author to describe the act of presenting numbers – as a communication skill that anyone can learn.  For people whose jobs depend on how clearly and effectively they present numbers – accountants, financial analysts, lawyers, fundraisers, salespeople, engineers, marketers, and public policy advocates, to name just a few – mastering the art of quantation can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the information they’re presenting, on their professional reputation, and on their relationship with their audience. 

There are official and unofficial rules that dictate language, etiquette, sportsmanship, and all the other ways we communicate in our professional and personal lives. Presenting numbers is no exception.  That idea is at the core of a new book, Painting with Numbers: Presenting Financials and Other Numbers So People Will Understand You (John Wiley & Sons, Cloth, $39.95, 4-color; 304 pages; ISBN:  978-48-17257-5), which introduces the artful practice of quantation and lays out the “rules” for presenting numbers.

Author Randall Bolten asserts 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,” asserts the former Silicon Valley executive.  “Unfortunately, very little of your education was probably devoted to developing these skills.”  

Moreover, as with any other form of communication, when presenting numbers you are constantly sending all kinds of messages to your audience. . .  about your respect for your audience, your professionalism, your attention to detail, your work ethic, and even your perceived intelligence. Even small errors can have a disproportionately negative impact on your audience’s understanding as well as on their opinion of you.  With sympathy for the presenter and wit, Bolten addresses these messages you may be sending, and how to manage them. 

Painting with Numbers teaches the reader to communicate financial information and other numbers clearly, understandably, concisely, and – most of all – effectively.  The author shares the following:  

  • Rules and best practices to create an accurate, clear, and meaningful presentation of your numbers
  • Two sorts of “Deadly Sins” that should absolutely be avoided:
    • The Sins of Presentation -- errors in how you put numbers on the page and in how your reports look
    • The Sins of Behavior – errors in the way you act when presenting numbers
  • How to make critical information stand out, and not render powerful data incoherent
  • The three levels of mastery necessary for effective quantation, just as they are necessary for any type of communication
  • How to organize numbers on a page, a monitor, or a screen so audiences can grasp the information quickly and intuitively
  • Using the words accompanying the numbers properly and to enhance the meaning of the numbers they’re describing
  • How to make PowerPoint presentations truly powerful and how to excel with Excel spreadsheets and graphs

One of Bolten’s goals is to boost financial and numerical literacy and put the onus on the presenter of numbers-filled information.  “In order for others to comprehend information, it must be communicated to them in such a way that is accurate, clear, and meaningful,” says Bolten. “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.

Indeed, Painting with Numbers is not about numbers.  “This book is about presenting numbers, and doing it clearly concisely, elegantly, and most of all, effectively,” asserts the author in his Introduction.  “This distinction between numbers and presenting numbers is critical.”  Moreover, the way you present says a lot about the way you think.  Bolten says: “When you present numbers, you expose every aspect of your thought process to your audience, and you want that to be a good thing.”

Bolten hopes his book will be seen as part Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, part Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but for numbers instead of words.  His book comes out of 32 years of experience in corporate financial management, including 18 years as a CFO in Silicon Valley. He now operates Lucidity, a consulting practice focused on tasks where organizing and presenting complex information is critical.

“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,” advocates Bolten.  “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.”



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