Will They Throw Eggs?

How to speak with professionalism and pizzazz.

TO MEET THE REQUIREMENTS OF SARBANES-OXLEY, CPAs are making more oral and written presentations than ever before to more diverse groups, including audit committees and department gatherings. CPAs’ ability to communicate will have an impact on how others perceive them and their expertise. A well-organized presentation makes all the difference.

TO WRITE AN EFFECTIVE PRESENTATION, CPAs can follow five steps: Brainstorm, select headings, assign items to one of the headings, create an outline and add transitions so things make sense.

SINCE AUDIENCES INCLUDE PEOPLE WITH DIFFERENT levels of expertise who need to know different amounts of information, it’s critical to know your audience when you develop a presentation. When addressing a nontechnical group, make the necessary adjustments to ensure they understand.

WHILE POWERPOINT CAN BE AN EFFECTIVE TOOL, CPAs should not depend on it too much. The slides should not dominate the presentation.

TO HANDLE AUDIENCE QUESTIONS WITH EASE, speakers should try to anticipate what they may ask and prepare answers ahead of time. They also should repeat each question before answering to gain a few seconds to think. When they don’t know an answer, they should say so, then look it up and send it to the group after the presentation.

KELLY J. WATKINS is an international speaker and author on communication topics. She can be reached at www.keepcustomers.com or by e-mail at kelly@keepcustomers.com .

ith the advent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, many CPAs are required to speak at audit committee meetings and department gatherings, or even to train colleagues at various levels on the implications of the act. When it’s your turn in the limelight, how will you react? Will you mumble incoherently? Will you ramble? Will a bevy of butterflies attack you? Or will you give an organized, informative presentation in a professional manner?

According to Lori Gondry, CPA, supervisor of internal audit for Kindred Healthcare in Louisville, Kentucky, “Sarbanes-Oxley is one of the biggest things to affect companies in a long time. It will force people to communicate both orally and in writing. The need to document and communicate one’s role in the preparation of financial data will trickle down to the lowest levels.”

Regardless of whether Sarbanes-Oxley affects you directly, it will increasingly force CPAs to do more public speaking. “Most major corporations are stressing the importance of communication skills for CPAs,” says Pam Devine, customized training solutions manager for the Maryland Association of CPAs in Towson. “Almost every one of our corporate clients is considering offering a communications course this year.”

CPAs are expected to convey financial information or reporting requirements in an organized and professional manner. Your ability to communicate will have a direct impact on how others perceive you—and your expertise as a CPA. This article explains how to organize effective presentations for a wide variety of technical and nontechnical audiences.

How Internal Audit Communicates With the Audit Committee

As Sarbanes-Oxley changes how executives and managers communicate with the board of directors, a 2004 survey showed the methods auditors use to get the message across:

Source: Institute of Internal Auditors, www.theIIA.org , 2004 survey of chief audit executives.

To have the biggest effect, a presentation must be well-written and well-organized. Devine says, “If speakers aren’t organized, listeners may begin to question the numbers they’re presenting.” Writing in an organized fashion requires only a little preliminary effort. CPAs can use the following methodology to write either a formal presentation or a two-minute staff report. Although this process may seem cumbersome at first glance, it actually will save time in the end.

Step one: Brainstorm. The first step is to think. Write down everything you might want to cover on the subject until you’ve exhausted all ideas. It’s OK to abbreviate at this point. Avoid the temptation to just start writing the presentation. You’ll end up with a jumbled mess.

Step two: Select headings. Determine how you’ll organize the presentation—how you will divide it. What headings will you use? If you’re speaking on Sarbanes-Oxley to a group that’s unfamiliar with it, for example, you might use headings such as:

I. Explanations of Sarbanes-Oxley.
II. Implications for your department.
III. What you need to do differently now.
IV. Preparing for the future.

Step three: Assign items. Review the information on the brainstorm sheet. Assign each item to one of the headings. If you have information that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere, omit it.

Step four: Outline. Put everything into a basic outline (nothing as elaborate as your senior English teacher required). A flowchart will work, too. An outline forces you to get organized and keeps you from randomly throwing in concepts. You can also see at a glance whether the headings are lopsided. If there are too many points under one heading, you may be spending too much time on that area.

Step five: Add transitions. After the outline is complete, add the necessary transitions so things make sense. These are little key words and phrases that connect all the points together. Numbers work great. For example, “There are four reasons why Sarbanes-Oxley is relevant to your department. First,…Second,…”

Ordinal numbers also serve to provide a road map for listeners. They’re similar to chapter headings in a book and they tell listeners (who can’t go back and “reread” something if they get lost) where you are in the presentation.

Any audience—from audit committees to colleagues to volunteer boards to your local parent–teacher organization—includes different types of people who need to know different types (and amounts) of information. According to Mary McKinley, CPA, senior manager at BKD, an accounting firm in Louisville, Kentucky, “Knowing your audience is critical. Speakers should tailor language and content to each group.” When planning a presentation, put yourself in the attendees’ shoes. What information do they need or want?

As CPAs, you’re in the numbers business. You’re in the details business. But many of your audience members aren’t. Sometimes they want only an overview, sometimes the opposite is true. McKinley tells of a training session she attended at which the attendees were eager for in-depth information, but the speaker spent all his time explaining broad concepts they already knew. His presentation failed because he hadn’t researched his audience.

As a CPA, you may find yourself in situations where you must address audiences that aren’t financially savvy or familiar with technical accounting concepts. In these cases, it becomes your job to assume the role of teacher.

Dale Gettelfinger, CPA, president of CPAmerica affiliate Monroe Shine in New Albany, Indiana, recalls attending an audit meeting where the audit team manager launched into a technical response that was not really on point. The group felt the manager was being evasive. “Too often CPAs resort to jargon or an involved technical response, thinking it is a time-saver,” he says. “This is only true when everyone knows and understands the issues.”

How do you avoid hiding behind jargon? As you review the technical terms you’ll use in the presentation, think about Gettelfinger’s comment. Will everyone understand the issues? What might they find confusing?

It’s difficult to educate people without appearing condescending. Provide a brief explanation of the item but don’t draw attention to it. Simply provide the definition as part of the presentation. When you’re subtle, people won’t feel you’re talking down to them.

The author has developed a new CPE course, “Talking, Listening, Writing, and Presenting,” which is available at www.AICPAlearning.org . (This article is based on the Presenting module.) Watkins also has several online CPE courses available via InfoBytes at www.cpa2biz.com .

AICPA Audit Committee Effectiveness Center and the Audit Committee Toolkit, www.aicpa.org/audcommctr . A variety of resources created to help audit committees and those who work with them execute their responsibilities.

One of the biggest mistakes speakers make is relying too much on their PowerPoint graphics. You are the speaker; you are the expert. The slides are simply an educational tool. Don’t let PowerPoint become the presentation.

Here are five tips to help you create more effective PowerPoint slides.

Less is more. Use fewer slides and put less information on each. If you’re presenting complex financial data, give the audience a handout. (Caveat: Don’t give the audience any extensive reading material until after the presentation or everyone will focus on it and not on you.)

Slides are for emphasis. They should reinforce your main points or illustrate complicated issues.

Use a graph or chart to illustrate general trends or give a big-picture view. Put the detailed numbers in a handout. Make sure the audience can see the labels/headings inside the graph.

If you need to discuss a certain line item, put just that item on the slide, not the entire spreadsheet.

If you must put several numbers on the screen at once (and there is almost no time when that’s truly required), highlight the specific number you’re discussing by making it larger. Continue to do the same for other numbers you want to focus on.

Five Tips to Overcome Last-Minute Jitters
1. Arrive early. You won’t appear very calm if you come running into the room at the last minute and leap into your chair with perspiration pouring down your face.

2. Check the equipment. Is the LCD projector hooked up? Do the markers by the flipchart write? Don’t let someone else demonstrate how to turn the equipment on or how to adjust it. You’ll be the one doing it during the presentation, so practice.

3. If possible, pre-set materials. Place notes on the lectern or table. Load the PowerPoint file and have it ready. Put any supplemental materials within easy reach. If that isn’t possible, keep your materials together in front of you so you don’t have to dig for them when it’s your turn to speak.

4. Be alert while being introduced. The group is looking at you, not the person introducing you. This is not the time to tug at your skirt or adjust your tie.

5. Make eye contact. Take a deep breath, look out at the group and smile.

The best way to appear confident in front of an audience is to be prepared. Avoid the temptation to wing it; the audience will know if you do. According to Gettelfinger, “I know firsthand how challenging it is to take the time to prepare everyone for an effective meeting. But better preparation means better meetings.”

Make the time spent preparing proportional to the importance of the speech. A three-minute informal update at a department meeting requires much less practice than a 45-minute annual presentation to the audit committee.

Practice aloud. Giving the speech in your head doesn’t count. If possible, visit the room where you’ll be speaking in advance and do a dry run of the speech. Having a mental picture of the setting will make you feel more comfortable.

The first step in putting together an effective presentation is to write down everything you think you might want to cover on the subject. Then use this information to develop the presentation.

Know your audience and tailor the presentation accordingly. If necessary, accommodate for nontechnical audiences by defining unfamiliar terms as you speak.

Slides are for emphasis. Don’t let PowerPoint become your presentation. Put less information on each slide and use fewer slides. Put complex financial data on a handout and distribute it to attendees after the presentation.

Prepare for questions in advance by asking yourself: What are the five most difficult questions they could ask? Write out prepared answers and practice saying them aloud. During the presentation, repeat each question to give your brain a few seconds to think before you start your answer.

Answering questions can be nerve-racking. I discovered this firsthand when giving a seminar on presentation skills to a group of about 150 people in Venice, Italy. During the question-and-answer session, a woman raised her hand. When I called on her, she said in a loud, clear voice, “You mentioned clothing. Well, I’d never wear what you’re wearing.”

Apparently, the color of my suit was a little too bright for her taste. I turned the question to my advantage and replied, “That’s an interesting observation. As I said earlier, when you’re speaking internationally, it’s important to remember cultural issues for dress , as well as for content.” (Now that I survived the incident, it makes a great story!)

Why is it important to handle questions effectively? Gettelfinger recalls a situation in which two young staff auditors were asked a question by an audit committee. They were caught off guard and got defensive. They even tried to convince the audit committee its question was immaterial.

How did this affect Gettelfinger’s perception of the auditors? “I felt the engagement partner was out of touch with the engagement,” he says, “and the other auditors didn’t genuinely care about the future of our organization.” Ouch!

Here are several techniques to help you avoid that negative appearance and handle questions in a professional manner.

Put the experience in perspective. Your job is to make the audience understand the material you’re presenting. That means listeners should ask you questions until they fully comprehend the information. Recognize the audience is just doing its job; this isn’t a personal attack.

Prepare for questions. What are the five most difficult questions they could ask? What are the five areas you have the most difficulty explaining? Prepare answers. Write them out. Practice saying them aloud. Now you’re ready for the worst and everything else will seem easier.

Repeat the question. This allows your brain a few seconds to think while your mouth goes on auto-pilot to repeat the question. It also ensures everyone in the room heard the question.

Behave professionally when you don’t know the answer. Don’t ramble or dance around the subject. And don’t resort to technical mumbo jumbo. You’ll appear more professional if you simply admit you don’t know the answer. Then assure the group you’ll find the solution and send it to them immediately.

It’s ironic that a technical law (Sarbanes-Oxley) is what has finally caused corporations to realize they need to improve nontechnical communications skills. As making effective presentations becomes an even more critical part of their careers, CPAs should expend the time and effort necessary to create and deliver speeches that convey a credible and professional image. Whenever you speak to a group, your reputation as a CPA is at stake. By implementing the techniques discussed here you can be confident your presentation will sparkle with polish and pizzazz.


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