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Know Your Audience, Be Prepared

Tips for Planning an Effective Budget Presentation – For Any Audience

By Kari Sousa - January 22, 2010

Over the course of a CBO or fiscal director’s career, you will probably give dozens – even hundreds – of presentations on budgets and finance, often speaking to different groups.  Your presentations may contain the same budget information, but depending on the occasion, your audience may include governing board members, union representatives, district employees, parents, community members and occasionally newspaper reporters.  To effectively communicate essential budget information to all stakeholder groups, it is important to remember the following tips:


Know Your Audience

Before you prepare your presentation, try to determine the makeup of your audience.  Different stakeholders will be looking for different kinds of information in your presentation.  And these various stakeholders will have differing levels of sophistication in the area of school district finances.

Remember that when you are making a presentation to your governing board, you are speaking in public.  This means that the presentation should be tailored to the knowledge (or lack thereof) of your governing board members --but your presentation should also be understandable to members of the public who may be watching in the audience, or following the meeting on cable television or streaming video. (Many school boards now post video of their meetings online, so community members can follow what was said at the meeting at their convenience.)


Be Prepared for the Hard (and Easy) Questions

Board members will frequently have questions regarding budget materials and presentations.  Therefore, it is often helpful to provide the presentation to Board members in advance to give them time to study and develop their questions prior to the meeting.  By meeting with board members prior to the meeting, you also have an opportunity to develop intelligent and coherent responses that enhance the confidence your governing board has in your skills and abilities.  In addition, it allows your governing board members to edit and rephrase the questions that they plan to ask. This can help keep both staff and the board from looking “unprepared.”


Differentiated Instruction Isn’t Just for the Classroom

Educators and board members frequently talk about students not arriving at school in perfect packages of 20 or 30 kids, all reading and writing at grade level.  Because kids arrive in mixed groups with varying abilities, school districts often focus on ensuring that teachers know how to differentiate instruction for students.  But frequently CBOs and fiscal directors don’t exercise the same practices when communicating with their governing board and stakeholder groups.  These groups are made up of community representatives, who frequently have varying levels of education, experience, commitment, and time to deal with budget information.

A good presentation should include a variety of difficulty levels in the materials, as well as a variety of delivery methods utilized to verify that stakeholders understand and absorb the material presented.  Examples of less sophisticated elements include graphs and tables.  More sophisticated elements can include additional handouts containing more detailed information, which may or may not be discussed during the meeting.  Try not to focus a large amount of your time on presenting the easiest or the most difficult elements.  These elements should naturally be included in your presentation, to keep everyone engaged.  But the majority of your audience will be somewhere in the middle of the information stream – and this is where your presentation should focus.

If you have trouble determining where the middle of the stream is, consider doing a survey.  If you don’t want to survey your governing board members, consider surveying your administrative team.  They frequently see the same presentations, have similar levels of experience and interest in budgetary information – and they will be honest about improvements that can be made.

Another effective way to ensure accuracy of budget communications is to review your presentation with a neutral party.  This could include a clerical staffer, a manager from another department, or even an unsuspecting family member.  Present the material and then ask, “What does this tell you?”  The accuracy of the answer will reveal a lot about the effectiveness of your communication.

Above all, don’t be afraid to change.  Board members, collective bargaining representatives, and parent leaders frequently rotate in and out of the budget process over the months and years, and new people get involved.  New representatives may have new or different needs for information.  So keep checking to ensure that your style is working.  If you find that your style isn’t working, keep trying new things until you get it right.

Editor's Note:  Kari Sousa, CPA is Director of District Support Services with the educational consulting firm Total School Solutions (TSS).