Help students tell the story behind the numbers

Tweak your assignments to bolster students’ communication skills.
By Megan Hart

The accounting profession has seen many changes over the years. Understanding the technical side of the job is no longer enough for new graduates — communication skills are also vital.

Many students will end up in roles where they'll interact with people who aren't that knowledgeable about finance, such as clients or colleagues in other divisions in their organization, said Stephanie Grimm, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thus, it's important that they're able to communicate complex financial ideas to a variety of audiences, whether in the form of emails, presentations, PowerPoint slides, or reports.

However, employers often say that interns and recent graduates could do a better job of articulating their thoughts, said Ryan Sheets, Ph.D., director of the Business Communication Lab at the University of Arkansas's Walton College of Business, located in Fayetteville.

"You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can't share them, you're not going to be able to influence decision-making," Sheets said.

In fact, it was feedback from employers that inspired the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business in Iowa City to create its Accounting Writing Program in 1998, said Carl Follmer, Ph.D., associate director of the program.

"We were hearing from companies that were hiring accounting graduates that students were knowledgeable in the technical content but struggling with communication skills," he said.

Now every accounting class at Iowa includes a writing assignment. Follmer and his colleagues help accounting faculty develop projects and grade assignments. They also meet individually with students to improve their writing chops.

Having strong communication skills can set students apart when they're competing for jobs and promotions, Follmer said. Here are some ways to help your students build those skills:

Teach communication alongside accounting concepts. Accountants need to master many technical concepts, and accounting syllabuses are often packed with important topics. Fortunately, you can add a communications component to your classes without sacrificing content, Grimm said. She recommends looking at your existing assignments to see where a writing project or presentation might fit naturally. For instance, she said, if you're teaching bonds, you can have students complete an assignment in the form of an email to a client about a bond offering.

Grade for communication. Many accounting faculty already give assignments that include a communications component, Follmer said, but they don't always make communications or writing part of the grade. Consider doing so to encourage students to focus more on how they present their ideas.

Focus on a few aspects of communication. In his role, Sheets helps accounting faculty add communications assignments to their classes. The first thing he usually asks them is what they want their students to learn. Knowing your objective — whether it's having students write more concisely, improve their tone, or craft a narrative from messy ideas — can help you decide where to start, he said.

You don't need to get bogged down in students' writing to offer helpful feedback. Get comfortable assessing just one or two communications skills, Follmer said. While reviewing assignments, for instance, consider whether you can identify the takeaway, if the writing is too wordy, or if the document is organized.

Consider nontraditional assignments. Use assignments and activities that ask students to replicate the types of deliverables they will be asked to produce on the job. For instance, have them write a professional email — something that's often a new experience for students who typically communicate in less formal channels, said Marcy Binkley, CPA, DBA, an assistant professor of accounting at Lipscomb University in Nashville.

To help students prepare for what they will encounter in the workplace, accounting classes at Iowa use many different formats for writing and communications assignments, Follmer said. For instance, students give presentations in various formats: in-person and virtual, recorded and live, individually and as groups, he said. "We're trying to hit all these different formats so when students get into the business world, they can say, 'Oh, I've done this at least once before.'"

Give clear directions. Before giving a writing assignment, it's important to clearly walk students through a good example, Binkley said. More direction typically means less stress for your students and better results. Accounting students, in particular, like having models to follow, she said.

Prepare for pushback. Often, students don't realize that communication is such an important part of accountants' jobs, Binkley said. Grimm, likewise, received some pushback from her classes when she first started assigning communications projects. But she's found that being upfront about her expectations at the beginning of the semester has helped. She tells students they'll be doing some writing, and "it just becomes an expectation," she explained.

Students aren't always excited about writing projects, Follmer acknowledged. However, he added, students do come to appreciate them after completing an internship or starting their first job.

"Just be prepared for some moaning and groaning as the medicine goes down," he said.

Ask for help. Speak with practitioners if you're unsure what kinds of communications assignments might benefit your students, Follmer suggested. You can also point students who need more help to resources such as your campus's writing center.

Megan Hart is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin. 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.

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