Depending on your career trajectory, it's likely that public speaking will play a small but important part of your role as a CPA. This can include presentations to clients, boards, peer groups, and maybe even larger audiences.
A tiny number of people actually relish the task of speaking in front of others. This leaves the vast majority of us agonizing over whether or not we will say the right thing.
It's no wonder I see so many presenters cling to the safety of bullet-point-packed slides, reading word-for-word, as the audience's eyes glaze over. Presenting can be scary.
Over the past few years, I've identified some common myths related to accounting presentations. In this article, I've enlisted the help of a couple of my peers in the field to help me debunk them, and share our top tips to help you become a more effective and confident presenter.
Myth No. 1: Accountants are good with numbers, not public speaking.
As a CPA, you regularly communicate with colleagues, clients, and people in your community. You've likely learned to be very effective at giving the people you're interacting with the information they want, in the way they need it.
Presenting to a group has a lot of similarities.
"Many CPAs don't think they have the skills to deliver great presentations. It doesn't feel like a natural thing, so they're hesitant to do it," said Meahgan Pear, national senior marketing manager at BDO in Grand Rapids, Mich.
If you feel less than comfortable with presenting, my top recommendation is to practice, practice, practice. Deliver your presentation in front of the mirror or to your friends or record it on your phone. Repeat it until you feel ready to ride with no hands (or maybe no slides).
Pear, who works with CPAs to improve their presentation skills, suggests trying an improv class. "There's an element of improv in a presentation. Being comfortable in that space will help you relax," she said, and I agree. Having taken improv classes for several years, I've learned that it requires creativity, spontaneity, and vulnerability. These same qualities make for great communicators.
Myth No. 2: Accounting doesn't lend itself to telling stories.
"I appreciate presenters who can take a complicated subject and pull out the why, not just the what. Storytelling can make a significant difference," said Brian Kreischer, CPA, managing partner with Frank, Rimerman + Co. LLP in the San Francisco area.
When formulating your presentation, consider what you want your audience to take away and how you want them to feel, Kreischer suggests. "What outcome are you interested in? Do you want the audience to feel reassured, informed, or persuaded? I find thinking this through might change how I say something," Kreischer said.
Kreischer adds that having a common theme or story in a presentation can make the information you're sharing more memorable.
I recommend experimenting with being true to your authentic self, while maintaining professionalism, of course. When it's helpful and appropriate, share a personal experience, talk about a mistake you made and what you learned, or open with a brief vignette on a recent vacation you took or hobby you love. Doing so will make you more relatable to your audience and helps them connect with you on an emotional level. You are a person too, not just a voice behind a lectern.
Myth No. 3: Our audiences expect dense slides and presentations packed with an overwhelming amount of information.
While audiences may be used to this format, it certainly isn't something they inherently crave.
"Accountants have so much great information that they want to share. To be effective, they must be able to pare it down. Even if it's technical in nature, delivery is a huge component of it." Pear said.
Next time you're preparing a presentation, consider the value you're offering your audience. What matters most to them? How can you deliver this value most directly?
When it comes to creating your slide deck, you may be tempted to fill it with voluminous technical explanations, dense bulleted lists, and too many data points.
There are a few reasons I believe accounting professionals do this:
1. It's a security blanket. If all else fails, we can look to our slides to have the answers.
2. We feel we need to give our audience all the information we have.
3. We believe we need to front-load our presentation with technical information for it to qualify for CPE.
To gain the confidence to edge away from dense slide decks, consider this: You are a professional who knows your stuff! There is a reason you've been charged with presenting the information in the first place. Find talking points that you are comfortable speaking on, without having a script. Imagine someone is asking you your advice or a question on how to apply a new standard or regulation. That's what they really want to know, and sharing examples and current practices is both appropriate and appreciated by the audience.
I also challenge you to make it your personal goal to share only a few key points (not everything you know), and to experiment with using a simple image to illustrate your point, or tell a story to emphasize the message you're trying to convey.
And while it is true that materials and delivery methods must be technically accurate to qualify for CPE, that level of detail does not have to be in your slide deck. A handout to complement your presentation or written summary of your talking points materials may offer a more effective solution.
Let's bust these myths
If you're ready to help eliminate these myths for our profession and take your presentations to the next level, try connecting with your audience with storytelling, imagery, and being more true to yourself. Your prospects, peers, clients, and community will appreciate it, and with practice, you will present with confidence.
Kristen Rampe, CPA, is a consultant to the accounting industry, based in Michigan. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.