A significant component of the ongoing evolution of the accounting profession is the requirement for stronger communication skills to enhance stakeholder engagement with, and understanding of, important numbers.
At a glance
- The ability to narrate a story through numbers has become an important component of a finance professional’s work.
- Thinking visually and then translating that into words is one way to deal with the challenge of communicating complex financial information.
- It is also important to avoid finance jargon when communicating about numbers, while focusing on context and the relevance of the numbers to a client’s situation.
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Students undertaking the postgraduate course in business communication for accounting professionals at Melbourne’s Monash University are asked to complete a rather unusual exercise.
The assignment is straightforward – describe what it means to be a professional. However, instead of writing an essay or delivering an oral presentation, the accountants have to express their take on professionalism through the medium of photography.
If this seems difficult, it is supposed to be. Nicholas McGuigan CPA, associate professor at Monash Business School, says the idea is for the students to “think in a visual way, which many of them haven’t done before”.
“It helps them to think more broadly and, in doing so, they are understanding a different language, and they get to learn more about how they can communicate visually,” says McGuigan.
The course is a new addition to the curriculum, first offered in 2020, as part of the masters in professional accounting degree, reflecting the rapid changes in the accounting profession and the need for accountants to develop their “soft” communication skills.
“I think communication is often what is missing with accountants,” says McGuigan. “We often get so excited about the numbers, we forget that there are many people – our clients included – who are fearful of numbers.”
McGuigan and his colleagues encourage accountants to develop a “reflective practice”, where questioning the numbers, and the story behind them, becomes more important.
Many of the 300-odd students who undertake the course each semester struggle with it, McGuigan says, because some of the concepts are so foreign to them, but they also enjoy it, because their minds are “opened up to a new way of seeing and doing”.
“We try to transform them into being better communicators,” says McGuigan. “But some of them are uncomfortable with those different experiences. They don’t want to go outside their comfort zone, don’t want to draw concepts or take pictures – but many find that it really does shift them into a new way of being and action.”
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Momentum for change
The Monash course is one of the many outcomes driven by the the momentum for change within the profession, according to McGuigan, which includes the need to retire many of the old stereotypes of what accountants do as professionals and what they are like as people.
The new way of communicating goes beyond letting go of finance jargon, says McGuigan. Good written and oral communication is “formed by the way we are thinking”.
“The more you know about the way you are thinking, the more you are able to articulate in both oral and written forms,” he says.
"People talk about maths, but it's not about the numbers, it's about comprehension." Elizabeth Stratford FCPA, New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice
To inspire students to change their thought processes, the course put in place an “artist in residence” program, with Melbourne artist and curator Rebecca Conroy putting accountants through a “speed-dating” marathon to find out about their day-to-day tasks and to encourage them to be more creative in their communication.
McGuigan believes it is these kinds of creative initiatives that will help accountants evolve in their roles and prevent them being replaced by technology, such as artificial intelligence and robots.
Few accountants know the need for creativity better than Sarah Lawrance FCPA, a Sydney-based public practitioner and founder of Hot Toast, an accounting practice that specialises in working with clients in the creative industries, particularly film production.
Lawrance might also be the only accountant in Australia who describes herself as “chief dreamer” on her email signature.
When she founded the firm five years ago, Lawrance says her business model was to replicate many of the functions of the accounting department of a small to medium-sized creative production company, and to make that available on an outsourced basis.
“I’m probably more comfortable with creatives in many respects than I am with accountants,” she says.
Most of Lawrance’s professional contact is with the chief executives or managing directors of the production companies, who are often also the founders.
With them, communication is “all about the context and relating it back to their own world”, which means helping them understand what the individual financial levers and tools mean for the overall performance of their business and for growth.
Lawrance speaks the “language of production” rather than the language of accountancy because her business model is to be an extension of her clients’ business. She writes the way she talks – informally – and tries to approach client accounts in the same way as they approach a creative project.
“We don’t want to come in with guns blazing, saying ‘I’m the accountant and this is how it is going to be’,” says Lawrance. “Fundamentally, our clients are storytellers, so what we try to do is to craft a story with the numbers, and from an operational and financial point of view we meet them halfway.”
Visual models and infographics help, says Lawrance, but they are no substitute for direct engagement, which comes from what accountants say and how they say it.
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Comprehension is key
Elizabeth Stratford FCPA works in a very different role to Lawrance, but shares many ideas about communication.
Stratford works in the public sector, as chief financial officer at the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice, where she says the key to communicating financial concepts is to present them in the context of service delivery and outcomes.
“When we are talking about budget decisions, we try and link that back to what the mandate is and the outcomes we have been charged to deliver,” says Stratford.
“What I ask my team to do all the time is look at something and then think about it from the perspective of someone who has no idea about what all those terms and acronyms stand for.”
Stratford says that a major conduit for better communication is the way her finance team is structured, with business partnering teams embedded directly with frontline service delivery units.
These team members, she says, become “interpreters” and her “eyes and ears” in a two-way discussion, which is both about finance and operational issues.
Stratford acknowledges that she works in an area full of jargon, both financial and public sector, and makes a conscious effort to recalibrate her communication depending on the person or the audience she is speaking with.
Unlike Lawrance, Stratford sees a difference between her spoken and written language, particularly when it comes to reporting.
"Communication is often what is missing with accountants. We often get so excited about the numbers, we forget that there are many people... Who are fearful of numbers." Nicholas McGuigan CPA, Monash Business School
“I wish I could say, hand over heart, that I avoid jargon, but I feel I must slip back into it sometimes, particularly when I am ‘talking shop’,” says Stratford.
“Sometimes, even with some of our most senior executives, they say, ‘Hang on a minute, you’ve used that term, and we don’t know what that means’, so it’s something I can be guilty of even though I am conscious of it.”
So-called “soft skills”, says Stratford, are now absolutely necessary for finance professionals. Those who “rise to the top” are the ones who can not only communicate, but also pitch financial ideas that engage and produce outcomes.
“People talk about maths, but it’s not about the numbers, it’s about comprehension,” says Stratford.
Back at Monash University, McGuigan sees many reasons to be optimistic about accountants’ communication skills, and they are largely demographic.
As accountancy is changing, so are the types of people who are attracted to the profession, he says.
Developments in technology mean that being an accountant is now less about arriving at the numbers. More accountants entering the profession also understand that good communication is part of their required skill set. They are more confident and comfortable about explaining financial concepts “beyond the numbers”.
“But there is still that stereotypical view of accountants,” says McGuigan. “There is a view that they look and act in a particular way, and that stereotype is often used for humour and poked fun at.
“I’m trying to break away from those stereotypes and change the impression of my accounting students created by their parents’ generation.”