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Telling The PFM Story

A Snarketing post by Ron Shevlin, Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors

In a recent Financial Brand article titled Online Banking 2.0: Getting Visual, Brett King is quoted as saying:

“FIs still have a long way to go. Visualizations and basic budgeting tools are only one small step forward. It’s going to take more than a few fancy pie charts, a drag and drop goal function, and seeing account usage on a timeline to pimp out internet banking. While a pie chart is potentially an effective tool to show me some of that, and might even be central in some scenarios, there is a lot of other relevant information that might be prioritized.”

My take: Totally agree. FIs need to tell their customers a PFM story.


Here’s the problem few bankers seem to want to realize: Many people hate numbers, aren’t comfortable with numbers, and/or don’t want to spend their time trying to make sense of numbers.

This is one of the major reasons that PFM usage is so low (another being the fact that many of us just aren’t interested in doing budgets, categorizing our expenses, or graphing our financial lives to death).

Want to increase the usage of PFM — and it’s value to customers? Tell a PFM story.

Tell each PFM user the “story” of their spending, savings, investment performance, etc. each month. In WORDS, not numbers.


How are you going to do that?

A company called Narrative Science just might be able to help. The company claims to “transform data into stories and insight.” From what I’ve seen, it just might be able to do that with PFM data.

Here’s an example for what the company has created for one financial services firm:

The “narrative” was created solely from data provided to Narrative Science’s AI engine.


For any particular customer, the depth and detail of the narrative will depend on the level of data provided. But if a bank customer gets a personalized “statement of performance” each month — and gets value from it — it might create an incentive to interact more frequently with the PFM platform.


What I would like to see Narrative Science develop (and for PFM providers to do, as well) is tell “data stories” in the form of infographics. 

Let’s face it: With the exception of the highly-intelligent people who read this blog, most people out there are too damn lazy to read a lot of text. 

An infographic — a good one, that is — isn’t just a series of graphs and charts. It’s a story, a narrative, that makes heavy use of visual ways to display data. 

But the missing ingredient to PFM isn’t graphs and charts — it’s the story. 

Ron ShevlinRon Shevlin is Director of Research at Cornerstone Advisors. Get a copy of his best-selling book, Smarter Bank: Why Money Management is More Important Than Money Movement. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter at @rshevlin.

All content © 2017 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.

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  1. David Kreiman says:

    If it was possible to agree in excess of 100%, I would say I agree 150% with what you have proposed here. Storytelling is a lost art, and there are so many untapped uses for that skill. And while there are appropriate times and places for numbers and graphs and charts, a good story engages. PFM should be engaging.

  2. Michael Nuciforo says:

    I think ‘telling the story’ is also missing the point. Change the M in PFM from management to maximisation and you have the solution. Instead of static, generic information display, imagine your PFM (new M) could help you save money through intelligent actions – either automated or customer initiated.

  3. Michael: Agreed. Didn’t mean to imply that a “PFM story” is the end-all-be-all. You call it “maximization”, I call it “foresight”. See the post I wrote back in September 2012

  4. To get Narrative Science to “tell your PFM story” via the data would be fantastic. I like how you took it a step further to creating useful infographics — instead of a quick financial yarn.

    On a side note about Narrative Science: I first heard about this firm about a year ago in a PR blog called Spin Sucks by Gini Dietrich. Her particular post on this company entitled, “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story than Humans?”, shocked me that with enough data a program can write a story — and there are publications already using it today for that purpose. Slightly controversial if you’re a hardcore journalist, but highly applicable if your a PFM expert.

  5. IND Group used a narrative-driven approach to PFM when they presented at Finovate Europe. We all create meaning, or if you prefer, make sens of things, through narrative, and I think it is a great insight into humanizing PFM.

  6. Thanks for the link. Sounds pretty cool. And just another reason why I regret not being able to go to Finovate.

  7. Shouldn’t be controversial to journalists — should free them up to do more important things.

  8. Good stuff Ron. Case in point in support of your comments: A baseball scoring app I use for my son’s team showcases all the stats you could care to view, but the kid’s favorite part is the game recap. It is a game narrative based on the stats and drafted automatically by…. Narrative Science! The kids really prefer seeing their names in a story over seeing it next to a line of “meaningless” numbers.

  9. I would think rather than long narratives like that maybe another way to go would be to dissect it give them small bits of information like that maybe during loading screens or something so that while they are moving from one place to the next, they are rewarded with an interesting bit of knowledge about how they are spending or something. It both fills that annoying gap while you are waiting and makes it more digestible for the regular person. All the studies out there tell us that people read in small bits and pieces though I could see HIGHLY customized content like this working but maybe as one way that you give it to them. So after seeing the smaller bits, you could lead them to the full analysis for those that are craving more.

  10. ForPFM to be effective and add value, it should not only tell a story, but should discuss behavior in terms of future potential. A rear view mirror view us not as helpful as a view into the future. This is what Moven is doing with MoneyPulse and MoneyPath.

  11. Trevor: Great points, totally agree. When I spoke to Narrative Science a few weeks ago, I asked them if they were helping their clients tweet. I think it would be cool for an FI to take the “narrative” derived from the data that the collective PFM customer base provides to tweet out “small bits of information”, as you call it. I think it would be a good way of engaging PFM customers outside of the PFM platform itself.

  12. Like this a lot even if people don’t read any more (perhaps because I worked in AI on rule based expert systems back in the 80s and I’d like to think I was enamored with them for a good reason 🙂

    Another thought: Instead of focusing on the individual, perhaps focus on the relationships between them. Make regular interactions more convenient and consistent. E.g., consider changing the P in PFM to F as in Family. Just think how many money interactions occur between generations in a family and how incredibly ad hoc they are. There’s an opportunity to improve things there.

  13. Great point. PFMs focus on the individual, which is understandable, but they usually do not seem friendly to household or family budgeting. I would wager that your average recent college graduate is nowhere near as likely to sit and obsess over budgets and projections as parents.

  14. I also agree about the pivotal importance of turning data into natural language such as comments and recommendations.
    For us non-banking folks, numbers mean nothing if there is no explanation behind what they mean and how they are relevant to us. My company, Yseop, also presented at Finovate (, and we provided a live example of turning over 4,000 pieces of financial data into a meaningful executive summary for a bank.
    It sounds like our solution could be useful for making PFM data more meaningful and could go even further by pushing personalized recommendations with clear explanations of the “why”.” And Yseop writes and speaks “on the fly”–in multiple languages.

  15. Let face it: We’re an ADD culture, and yet FI’s miss the opportunity they could leverage by deepening the customer relationship with user-friendly graphics of a financial budget. I find it baffling, and can only wonder if the reason why FI’s aren’t embracing PFM is because they’re so focused on keeping up with the never-ending rules for compliance. Thanks for writing about the topic Ron, I’m a big believer in infographics!

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