3 pro tips for writing about money

Writing about financials is a core function of most corporate communicators. Consider these insights for conveying financial information accurately and truthfully regardless of background.

Money—it’s more fun to have than to write about.

The PR industry is rife with smart people who pursued that field of study in part to avoid calculus and statistics classes. Too bad PR almost inevitably involves some writing about financial information.

Regardless of whether you’re mathematically challenged, here is a primer for writing about earnings, finances and money.

Follow AP Style

  • Describe relative amounts of currency as “less” rather than “fewer,” even though they are discrete items. For example: “I have $10 less than you,” not “$10 fewer.” This is an exception to the rule whereby items that can be counted take “fewer.”
  • “Fiscal” relates to budgets, whereas “monetary” applies to the money supply. Example: When preparing the budget, use fiscal responsibility so that we preserve our monetary reserves.
  • “Over” or “more than”? Editors at the AP Stylebook approved the interchangeability of “over” and “more than” to express a greater amount of something—to great protest. Previously, “more than” was the preferred term, and it is still the safer option if you’re dealing with a linguistic purist, and for clarity.
  • When converting currencies, only the first conversion is necessary in most cases.
  • Spell out the first reference of a foreign currency (“8 million Australian dollars”) and subsequently abbreviate (“AU$8 million”).

Tell an accurate story

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“There are three types of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics,” according to (probably) former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Including numbers does not make your story true, so take pains to ensure that your facts (and the story drawn from them) represent the situation.

Some examples:

In Q3, we delivered the 250,000th Tesla. This is a significant milestone as the Tesla fleet is now about 100 times larger than it was five years ago.

This is a positive and misleading spin on the true story, since it glosses over disappointment in the third quarter (which it mentions later) in favor of a sunnier five-year perspective. This document, however, is not a five-year update.

  • Facebook’s ad revenue has increased 49 percent year over year, but it didn’t let pure number-crunching dominate the story of its success. Its earnings release started with an emotional appeal from Mark Zuckerberg:

Our community continues to grow and our business is doing well…But none of that matters if our services are used in ways that don’t bring people closer together.

  • CVS Health led with bulleted performance statistics, then described a nuanced story with a nearly jargon-free statement from the CEO explaining its situation in layman’s terms:

The solid third quarter results we posted today keep us well on track to achieve our full-year targets. While operating profit in the Retail/LTC Segment was impacted by the devastating hurricanes, operating profit in the Pharmacy Services Segment was in line with expectations.

Avoid technical mistakes

  • If annual earnings rose from $8 million last year to $10 million this year, earnings increased 25 percent. (Also, AP style says you should write out percent).
  • However, looking backward from this year, the previous year’s earnings were 20 percent lower last year than they were this year (not 25 percent lower).
  • If your ROI was 40 percent last year and it’s 50 percent this year, your ROI increased 25 percent, or 10 percentage points. Novices may make the mistake of calling this a 10 percent increase, rather than a 10-percentage-point increase.
  • Similarly, if your company reported $100 million in earnings last year and $300 million this year, that’s a 200 percent increase.
  • In line with the previous point, distinguish between “three times as many” and “three times more than.” If Adam has one apple, and Eve has three apples, she has three times as many apples, not three times more apples than he does. Three times more would be four apples.
  • Revenue is a gross figure; profit is net. If you sold $100 worth of cupcakes that cost you $45 to make and bring to market, your revenue is $100 and your profit is $55. (Good for you.)

The big takeaway tip: Always have someone check your math.

What would you add to this list of financial writing guidelines, PR Daily readers?

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