Thursday, October 31, 2013

Are You Talking About What You Want to Say or What Your Investors Want to Know?

I confess that I’m not an avid reader of much of what gets churned out in the business press by the so-called experts. I readily admit that this is somewhat of a contradiction in me, because I want people to read what I write about in my area of expertise, but let’s face it, there’s a lot of crud out there. Most business writers seem to approach their subject as if it were the key component to business success. If their readers would simply follow their cookbook formula, everything would be peachy. If only life were so simple. So I tend to restrict my reading to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist and a few other assorted publications.

One of the other assorted publications I tend to pay attention to is the McKinsey Quarterly, and it is an article there that spurs me to write today. The article, which was published early in October, 2013, is entitled “How B2B companies talk past their customers” and it examines the gap between the messages that suppliers send to their customers and what their customers really want to know. The article struck me as particularly germane to investor relations because, stripped to its bare essentials, IR is a business-to-business marketing effort where companies present the reasons to own their stock to sophisticated purchasing managers who are interested in buying a commodity that will benefit their customers, such as mutual fund investors or pension managers.

The article, which is available at, looked at how companies in the business-to-business sector positioned their brands and came up with a list of 13 broad themes and topic areas ranging from the practical (low prices) to the lofty (corporate social responsibility). Then the authors turned around and asked customers how important they thought each theme was in evaluating the brand. What they found was that there was an almost complete mismatch between what companies were saying and what customers thought was important.

This piece of research is instructive to investor relations because IR departments are formulating brand messages all the time, whether it’s in an investor presentation or an annual report, yet in my experience, the vast majority of all such messages are put together based upon what the company wants to say, not what investors want to hear.

So here’s a radical thought. The next time you put together a presentation, stop and think about what investors want and need to hear. This shouldn’t be terribly difficult, as IR departments are constantly bombarded by questions from analysts and good investor relations practice dictates that you should track the types of questions being asked. The data should be there – you simply have to integrate it into your message.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a relatively simple rule of communications – know your audience. Unfortunately, it is a rule that is often overlooked when polishing IR presentations and annual reports.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Make It Memorable

One thing I have learned from teaching over the past six years is that if you want your audience to not only learn, but also remember what they learn, you have to make it memorable.  There are many ways to do this – you can speak with passion, you can use humor, you can have catchy phrases and acronyms, you can even (heaven forbid) have a catchy PowerPoint presentation – but what you are saying and doing has to catch and hold the audience’s attention. In a way, it is education as theater, and it is particularly effective in an adult education setting where the distractions of emails and messages from the office are a constant challenge.
Last week I attended the NIRI Southwest regional conference in Ft. Worth and it reinforced my opinion that the Southwest regional conference is a better overall learning experience than the NIRI national conference. I have a variety of reasons for saying this, but for today I want to focus on the educational aspect of the Southwest regional conference. The national conference seems to be locked into a format that is heavily dependent upon panel discussions featuring panelists that are long on narrow technical expertise and short on speaking skills. This was true a year ago when I attended in Seattle and a quick review of the 2013 National conference agenda reveals that the vast majority of the sessions continue to be panel discussions. The result of many panel discussions viewed in quick succession is the verbal equivalent of Chinese water torture – many words delivered in a monotone, leading to eventual brain damage. 
The Southwest regional conference, in the years when it has been organized by the Houston chapter, has broken from this mold. In 2010 and 2012 the conference featured a case study that forced attendees to work together and make decisions. They went beyond that and introduced several new formats to the conference this year. (Full and fair disclosure: I was on the conference planning committee, but due to my move back to Chicago, cannot claim much credit for the work of the planning committee.) In addition to the usual speakers and panel discussions, the conference introduced an interactive case study based on a real life example (featuring yours truly), a point - counterpoint style debate featuring practitioners discussing current hot topics in IR, an IR version of the dating game where IR officers try to convince an analyst to cover their company’s stock, and my favorite, three short (20 minute) TED style talks where people addressed issues near and dear to their hearts with passion and conviction. The result was a mix of information delivered in memorable fashion that consistently engaged the audience.
When you are in investor relations, a key element to what you do is communication. I can only hope that the National Investor Relations Institute takes note of how the Southwest regional conference is expanding the communication boundaries in order to help people remember what they learn at conferences and become better practitioners of investor relations. After all, isn’t what these conferences are all about?