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Why accountants must learn to speak and present effectively

10 February 2021: Author and practice owner Della Hudson outlines why strong communication skills are more vital than ever for the modern accountant.

With the ongoing pandemic driving increasing levels of automation across accountancy, a higher proportion of our time is now spent communicating. But presenting results or advice, either online or in-person and speaking to audiences of more than a handful of people at a time can be a little daunting to those more accustomed to sitting behind a desk.

So how can introverts learn to speak out? And how can we present the accounts in an engaging, interactive way?

To answer these questions, I spoke to Alexandra Bond Burnett, who runs a bookkeeping practice as well as a speaking and communications business aimed at giving finance professionals a voice. She tells ICAEW Insights she believes communication is “the bridge between data and effective financial decisions”.

Burnett began her career in bookkeeping as an entrepreneurial way to fund her time at drama school and away from the stage still takes a keen interest in how we use our voice. She also uses personality profiling and other tools to work out the best way to communicate with different people.

Communication skills are relevant to most accountancy roles. Even an in-house compliance accountant still needs to extract information from colleagues or get them to complete tasks by affecting them with words, tone of voice and body language, and the higher up the food chain you go, the more likely you are to have to present.

Burnett asks: “What is the value of an accountant who doesn’t have communication skills? Do they make a sound? Do they have an impact?”

As accountants we need to:

  • Engage clients or internal stakeholders in the finances
  • Communicate advice clearly
  • Know how to pitch, present and connect business information in an effective way

Speaking is a bit like long-distance running – most people can do it after a fashion, but not many can do it well without training. If runners take the time to train and build up stamina, strength and technique, they will be much more effective over a longer distance. Similarly, you can’t expect to speak well without preparation. Speaking is a mixture of muscle training, reading your audience, revealing your personality to make a connection and reacting and interacting so you resonate better and build rapport with your audience or listener. 

Once you have that rapport, you can use story structures to simplify complicated ideas, so the message hits home – your audience will know what to do and why it matters. The story you tell comes from the finance reports: do they show a warning, or can the business owner, client or shareholders celebrate? … can’t usually see that story so it is up to us to communicate the message that we can see in their numbers.

“Presenting is getting buy-in for you and your ideas,” adds Burnett. “Hold yourself, project your voice and have presence in a room. “

Whether it’s presenting on Zoom, in a small meeting room or, when the time comes, a packed auditorium, we use many of the same techniques to get that buy-in:

  • Understand your audience
  • Understand how they like to receive information
  • Learn to read the audience
  • Reveal enough of yourself to build a rapport
  • Be clear what is the ONE idea that you need them to leave with. 

Speaking on Zoom, you may need to put in more energy to connect with your audience through the screen. Learn to talk to the lens on Zoom and use good lights to illuminate your face so they can see you. It’s a bit like looking people in the eye, but less intimidating. Wherever you are speaking, be sure to speak to your audience and not at them.

Soft skills can really help your career. Digital technology is taking over and has highlighted that accountants need to be more human. It also means we have more time to use our skills to partner with business. Learning to speak and communicate well will help us to find our way back to having relationships with businesses and their owners. 

Accountancy is about creating an impact from our particular expertise. Technology can’t connect with other humans in the same way and we can use these relationships to encourage clients or internal stakeholders to trust us and buy into our communications. 

Our role as human accountants is to understand people and to influence ideas and change. Speaking and communicating well means that we can cut through the overwhelm, connect and build trust.

More from Della Hudson on ICAEW Insights: