Be a Star CPE Instructor

Being a discussion leader offers plenty of opportunities to unleash your inner pedagogue.





The CPA profession’s continuing professional education regimen requires a supply of class presenters, or discussion leaders, who in turn receive honoraria, CPE credit and the satisfaction of imparting valuable skills and knowledge. CPAs considering becoming discussion leaders can take several exploratory steps, including facilitating live CPE sessions or speaking at local CPA chapters. State CPA societies often need new discussion leaders for live CPE presentations. Course materials can be obtained from the AICPA and other sources and typically include a guide for discussion leaders and supporting illustration slides.

Some tips for giving a presentation: Slides should complement, not duplicate, oral content. Presenters should develop strategies to encourage group discussion, including asking questions in different ways. When asked a question they can’t answer, discussion leaders can invite answers from the audience or promise to research the question and follow up later.

After the presentation, discussion leaders can learn from course evaluations, especially any written comments.

James Schaefer, CPA, DBA, is a professor of accounting at the University of Evansville, Evansville, Ind. His e-mail address is The author would like to thank Stacey Wilson, Michael Matthews and Allan Bachman for their helpful comments.

P roviders of continuing professional education are frequently looking for discussion leaders to teach classes. And most CPAs at some point have probably wondered what it would take to be a discussion leader.

The benefits include pay as well as what most discussion leaders find is a greater reward: the satisfaction of sharing knowledge. Discussion leaders also earn CPE credit for themselves. However, being a discussion leader is harder than it looks, and most CPAs have little or no training as public speakers. But with the proper attitude, sufficient preparation and development of presentation skills, anyone can become a good discussion leader. This article explains how preparation and knowing what to expect can help make the experience a successful one.

The most important component of a good discussion leader is a desire to succeed. Keep in mind that live CPE is expensive, and participants are giving up valuable time to attend. Your goal should be to give the participants knowledge and perspective that helps them in their careers in ways they can readily appreciate. In his book How to Run Seminars & Workshops , Robert Jolles suggests that a realistic expectation is a stimulating training session that is “delivered professionally and leaves the participant motivated and satisfied.”

Second is knowledge of the subject matter. The discussion leader must know the material backward and forward. Every audience at a CPE program will include CPAs who have worked with the material and have questions regarding its implementation.

The third component is being a good presenter. The discussion leader sets the tone for the whole program. More than just presenting the material, he or she answers questions, involves participants and keeps the program on track.

There are many ways to become a discussion leader. One approach is to attend live CPE programs. State CPA societies offer a variety of CPE programming, often hiring discussion leaders for course materials they have purchased from publishers such as the AICPA. The advantage to teaching an AICPA course offered by a state CPA society is that the course materials are already developed and are updated regularly.

Attending state CPA society-sponsored CPE programs allows you to make contact with the society’s personnel. Tell them you are interested in becoming a discussion leader and ask how to get started. Michael Matthews, the director of CPE for the Florida Institute of CPAs, asks potential discussion leaders to send a one-page biography, including any testimonials received from previous speaking engagements.

Stacey Wilson, the manager of member services for the Indiana CPA Society, adds, “We look for people with the potential to be both dynamic and interactive. Another aspect is finding someone who is very knowledgeable, if not an expert, on the topic at hand.”

The importance of credentials depends on the nature of the course. “If it is a course on digital forensics, being an expert is more important than credentials held,” says Allan Bachman, education manager for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. “But if it is a course on fraud prevention, being a Certified Fraud Examiner would be a plus.”

If you want to get a feel for what it is like to be a discussion leader, offer to be a facilitator (the person who helps with the sign-in sheet, distributes material and administers evaluations). Being a facilitator allows you to interact with both the discussion leader and the participants.

If you are nervous about becoming a discussion leader, contact a local chapter of your CPA society, the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) or Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and offer to present a short program. Chapters are always looking for programming. Short programs at this level are usually more casual, and participants may have lower expectations.

If you are an expert or have considerable experience with a subject, consider writing your own course. Most CPE vendors are always looking for new programming and would welcome a proposal. Matthews suggests sending a one-page summary of the proposed topic, including the targeted audience, the course’s objective and what knowledge people will walk away with. The AICPA’s Web site provides a link to all of the state CPA societies (

If you want to get some training first, apply to attend the IIA’s Instructor Development Course. It is tuition-free and runs for 3½ days. Presentations are taped and critiqued. For more information, contact Richard Gipson (

Once you commit to being a discussion leader, you will receive a contract from the provider that details what the provider expects from you and includes information on expense reimbursement as well as the honorarium. Most CPE providers ask that you return your expense form within 30 days, although in the spirit of cooperation you should return it at your earliest convenience. You should read the contract carefully, because it contains important information on what the provider needs from you beforehand as well as other expectations, such as arrival time. Most CPE providers ask that you arrive at least 30 minutes before the starting time, although 60 minutes is a good idea.

Keep in mind that once you sign and return the contract, the provider (and everyone who registers for the program) is counting on you to honor the commitment. Only a serious medical emergency in your immediate family should prevent you from honoring a commitment to be a discussion leader.

The CPE provider should give you a Discussion Leader Guide (unless you have agreed to write your own course). Typically, the guide will contain a full copy of the participant manual, along with Discussion Leader Notes for each chapter and a Microsoft PowerPoint file. You should plan on spending several hours reviewing the course material. The more you prepare, the more comfortable with the material and confident you will be. Your preparation schedule should include a good night’s rest before the program, to allow you to be refreshed and enthusiastic.

Professional attire, even if it is not requested or required, helps create a favorable first impression. Introduce yourself to as many of the participants as possible. They will appreciate it and be more inclined to interact with you. At the beginning of the program, announce your schedule, including breaks and lunch. And stay hydrated, as your vocal cords need it.

Most experienced discussion leaders alternate between using PowerPoint, discussion, and question-and-answer, especially in all-day CPE programs. In fact, experienced presenters strive not to overuse PowerPoint. In her book Death by PowerPoint, Cherie Kerr argues that the PowerPoint presentation should only serve as a background.

The AICPA discussion leader guides offer several means of explaining the course material. For example, the slides provided can be used to present inherently complex accounting topics. And reviewing the end-of-chapter questions and problems is a good way to reiterate the key concepts without using PowerPoint.

In the best programs, participants are active and involved. If you have a relatively small group (30 or fewer), you could have them all introduce themselves and briefly say why they attended. This sets up an interactive atmosphere. Keep in mind you don’t need everyone’s participation, just enough to keep the audience engaged. You could break larger audiences into groups to discuss end-of-chapter problems, then have each group select a spokesperson to give the group’s response. Asking questions also increases participation. In How to Run Seminars & Workshops , Jolles says the best way to get the audience involved is effective use of questioning. Presenters can begin with a fact-based question: “Can anyone…?” and if they get no responses, try an opinion-based question: “Does anyone have an opinion…?” The approach works especially well with smaller groups.

Once you get the audience involved in the discussion, they likely will have questions for you. Jolles stresses the importance of thanking questioners for their input as well as not discounting questions. You also should develop an approach for dealing with questions you cannot answer. This happens to every discussion leader, and they all worry about it. When it happens, give yourself a few seconds to think, and make sure you understand the question. If in doubt, try repeating the question. This may prompt the questioner to elaborate. If you still cannot answer the question, admit you do not know the answer and ask if anyone in the audience can help. Often, someone can, and this is where you benefit from developing skills. Every experienced discussion leader has asked for help from the audience, and when participants contribute, you are really leading the discussion. If no one can help, offer to research the issue and get back in touch with the person asking the question, then move on.

Finally, do not tell lawyer jokes. You never know who is in your audience or who might be offended. If lawyers are in attendance, they likely are J.D./CPAs, and they can be great participants. Avoid any off-color, sexist, religious or other comments that might be offensive.

At the conclusion of the program, you may want to give the participants your contact information, especially if you were unable to answer a question or promised to follow up on something. Say goodbye to as many people as possible and thank them for attending.

The CPE provider should have made some arrangement for the participants to complete evaluation forms. The provider usually will give you a summary of the evaluation results. You should spend some time looking at the numerical scores and comments and reflect on them. Be sure you understand the measurement scale and the wording of the responses. For example, if respondents are rating you on a scale of one to five, and a three is “good,” do not be upset if your scores do not average over a four. Accept the written comments in good faith and give them careful consideration. We all enjoy reading positive comments about our work, but becoming a good discussion leader includes carefully considering the more critical comments. Most critical comments are not meant to be personal (even if they seem so). As hard as they can be to read, ask yourself if they are valid. For example, if participants say you are too soft-spoken or went too fast (or too slowly), give it some thought.

Regarding the evaluation results, Bachman says, “While there are benchmark numerical scores we like to see, we also want to know if the discussion leader was able to answer the questions put forth and keep the audience interested. We look for discussion leaders who tied the presentation to the course material, while tying in their own personal experiences. These make for the best programs.”

Talking Points

Remember that people who show up to hear you want to believe that you’re smart, interesting and a good speaker.—William Germano, “The Scholarly Lecture: How to Stand and Deliver,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 18, 2003.

Rehearse your presentation, preferably with a live audience. This will yield unbelievable results! Also explain why your topic is relevant and important to CPAs. Participants want to leave your presentation with useful information and ideas they can apply immediately.—Michael Matthews, director of CPE, Florida Institute of CPAs.

When a speaker is able to elaborate on the topic, drawing from his/her own experiences, rather than just reading from the manual and slides, it makes for a much better and well-received course.—Stacey Wilson, manager of member services, Indiana CPA Society.

One of the trademarks of good presenters is that they enjoy their work and are committed to a product that adds value.—Barbara Wollmershauser and Jim B. Baker, CSA Sentinel, January 1997.

Maintain a positive attitude when addressing questions by your trainees. Questions from the trainees demonstrate a show of interest in the material as well as an environment conducive to a discussion.—Robert L. Jolles, How to Run Seminars & Workshops, 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

The sole purpose of a PowerPoint presentation is background for your presentation/show. It should not be the whole show.—Cherie Kerr, Death by PowerPoint: How to Avoid Killing Your Presentation and Sucking the Life out of Your Audience, ExecuProv Press, 2002.


For more information
CPAs with successful experience in leading seminars can contact the AICPA’s CPE office at 214-222-8207 about becoming a discussion leader or author for the Institute’s national CPE programs.

Web site
Statement on Standards for CPE Programs, AICPA and the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), and


Web sites
National Registry of CPE Sponsors, NASBA,
State CPA societies (directory at )

Institute of Internal Auditors’ Instructor Development Course. E-mail Richard Gipson at .


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