When someone makes a CPA career selection, chances are he or she doesn’t think, “I am a captivating public speaker, therefore I should go into accounting.” Research often shows that what attracts people to accounting is that they are good with numbers, they like math, they like business, and they like to serve clients. But the reality is that as CPAs gain more experience, they need to be good public speakers. Opportunities to explain the numbers become greater as they spend more time in the field, and the people who can successfully translate the language of accounting into a message their business clients or colleagues can understand are successful CPAs.
Most often, CPAs are asked to explain financial information to nonfinancial stakeholders (such as clients or nonfinancial colleagues) or to present technical information to CPA colleagues (such as with professional education). I will focus on these two scenarios, and provide tips on how to succeed in those situations.1
Make sure you get to the venue early. There are several “mechanical” reasons for this: you’ll want to make sure the room is set up how you want it, that all the equipment is working properly, and that if you have a PowerPoint or video, it is properly loaded and ready to go.
But there are more presentation-related reasons too. You’ll want to spend some time with the attendees. If there are new members to the board at the meeting, seek them out and introduce yourself. If you are speaking to a group that you are not familiar with, talk to them about their expectations for the meeting. In a CPE presentation, for example, this may help you deliver your presentation. To be able to use names, make eye contact with a person you already spoke with, and call back an earlier conversation will drive home a point to the individual you spoke with and others in the audience. Little connections will help you feel comfortable with the audience, and they will be more comfortable with you.
Bolster Your Introduction
A CPA’s credibility is already strong, as AICPA surveys reveal year after year. But don’t take anything for granted. The worst person to introduce you is your best friend because he or she will talk about what a great person you are, not about your knowledge or experience. Prepare an introduction that details your experience. Tell attendees why you are there, and convince them they should believe you.
Bring Tools Not Crutches
Most CPAs feel more comfortable when they work off a PowerPoint presentation. This is great, unless it’s used as a crutch. Presenters should never read off a PowerPoint slide. Attendees can read the display on their own. Instead, the image should serve as a visual cue to drive home your point. If you make a slide and have to say, “I know it’s tough to read this,” delete that slide and figure out another way to deliver your message. Maybe have a slide that says “Consolidated Statement of Financial Position” and have attendees look at the statement in front of them. You can walk through the numbers together. If your audience members are not CPAs, give them some direction, such as “You’ll find the number about halfway down the page.” Also, don’t overload the slides with lots of words and bullet points. You want people to listen to you, not read along.
One final note about PowerPoints: Be sure to position your laptop so that it is in front of you. You don’t want to turn your back on the audience. You should be able to glance down at the PowerPoint in front of you without having to see what is being projected on the screen behind you.
Use Your Voice
The cadence and volume of your voice is a powerful tool. Sometimes you can drive home a point by lowering your voice, making your attendees perk up. Starting an important statement with a conspiratorial whisper (“I’ll let you in on a trick I’ve discovered ...”) is a great way to enhance interest, especially if it’s about something they care about. Also, be sure to repeat important points multiple times.
Analogies Are Your Friends
Analogies can be a powerful and effective tool, especially if your audience is not comfortable talking about finances. If you can apply the numbers on a financial statement to elements of the business you are discussing, that will help people understand more complex financial concepts. CPA speakers must know their audience, their level of understanding, and what they care about. Think of taking your car to the mechanic. When my car isn’t working, I need to know how much it will cost to fix, when I will get the car back, and whether there is something I should be doing to avoid the problem in the future. I don’t care about how a carburetor works or how many tests the mechanic put the car through. I just want my car back and hope it doesn’t cost too much money. CPA speakers should be the car mechanic who delivers a running car and a plan to stay out of trouble in the future.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Public speaking doesn’t come naturally. Practice standing. Practice walking around the room. Practice in front of a mirror. It feels weird to look at yourself, but it helps. You may be surprised to find some annoying habits that you were not aware that you had.
Also, watch videos of other people to see what they do that you like. By watching videos, you may get some good ideas on how to keep your audience engaged. The PICPA produced a brief video to provide you with some tips to keep your audience engaged. It can be found on PICPA’s YouTube channel.
1 I make the following assumptions: CPAs already know the material inside and out; they are respected in their field (which is why they were asked to make the presentation); and that they want to do a good job.
Maureen A. Renzi is vice president of communications for the PICPA and a staff liaison for the
Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MoRenzi.