It’s annual report season, which includes announcements from the CEO and/or chairman of every public U.S. company. Given that Warren Buffett, the chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is the most successful investor of all time, you might expect that a 23-page communication from him would be jargon-packed and over most people’s heads.
In actuality, Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders is famously down-to-earth, conversational, and witty. Never mind for now the specific points he makes: how he communicates his message is a lesson for all of us.
Based on last year’s letter to Berkshire shareholders, here are some of the traits contributing to effective, engaging financial communications, and examples of how Buffett uses them to great effect.
- Use numbers to season the points you serve — they’re not the main dish. Buffett doesn’t just report on the underwriting gains of their insurance businesses and let the numbers stand for themselves; he explains the terminology, what the numbers mean, and how he and Charlie Munger, his business partner, view them. Case in point: “Our $58.5 billion of insurance “float” — money that doesn’t belong to us but that we hold and invest for our own benefit — cost us less than zero. In fact, we were paid $2.8 billion to hold our float during 2008. Charlie and I find this enjoyable.”
- Use analogies and metaphors. A great example is Buffett’s description of how many of us felt after the economic collapse in 2008: “By yearend, investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.” And he goes on to describe the government’s response: “In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone ‘all in.’ Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel.” These metaphors do more to explain his points than paragraphs of technical jargon ever could.
- Be honest and transparent. Buffett follows-up a recap of 2008 successes with the following revelation: “During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. I will tell you more about these later. Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.” Instead of deflating his credibility, this kind of refreshing candidness makes the audience more trusting of whatever else he might say: after all, he’s clearly not hiding anything.
- Use facts to put things in realistic context. After explaining how bad the economic situation was in 2008, Buffett gave a fact-based context for how to view these realities. “Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th Century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21 1/2% prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15% and 25% for many years. America has had no shortage of challenges. Without fail, however, we’ve overcome them. Compare the record of this period with the dozens of centuries during which humans secured only tiny gains, if any, in how they lived. Though the path has not been smooth, our economic system has worked extraordinarily well over time.”
We think these characteristics are the start of a great checklist for all of us who aspire to make numbers and financials approachable.
Try to use these principles next time you’re giving a financial presentation. After all, if the great Warren Buffett can make complicated financials simple and interesting, why shouldn’t we?
Originally published on Harvard Business Review Blog.