Why communication matters for accounting students

Adding a writing and speaking component to assignments is easier than you think.

By Sophie Hares

November 16, 2021

Today, accountants play a more strategic role in the organisations they work for. They’re no longer just the people who keep track of and calculate financial information but are also “seen as key strategic partners” and “the people you go to for advice”, said Carly Moulang, CPA (Australia), CA (ANZ), Ph.D., associate professor in the department of accounting at Monash Business School in Melbourne, Australia.

That means they need to be able to “translate the figures into something that is relevant and digestible to nonaccounting managers,” Moulang said. In other words, they need to be good communicators. Accounting students, too, must learn to communicate effectively to prepare themselves for the roles they will enter. 

Encouraging critical thinking and showing students how to apply their theoretical learnings to real-world topics such as environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is important to help improve how they present ideas and communicate, said Antti Miihkinen, Ph.D., university lecturer in the department of accounting and finance at the University of Turku, Finland.

Throwing students into practical situations and asking them to come up with solutions to challenges companies might be facing also teaches them how to communicate with people working in a broad range of roles, he said.

“These kinds of very practice-oriented tasks give them a good framework for how to talk to different stakeholders and audiences,” said Miihkinen, who teaches undergraduates and master’s students.

The challenge faculty face when teaching writing and presentation skills is weaving them into their already-packed classes. Fortunately, there are many ways to do so, such as having students write a paper for a specific audience or turn an essay into a presentation. Here are some strategies accounting faculty use to enhance their students’ writing and communication skills:

  • Emphasise the practical applications of what students are learning. One key to better communication is to encourage accounting students to understand the needs of their potential audiences and have the confidence to distil complex financials into easily digestible, fine-tuned formats.

Moulang stresses the idea that accounting topics such as budgeting have real-life applications by asking her students to research practitioner-oriented articles in newspapers or accounting magazines before they write their papers.

Reading about the topic highlights practical applications but also exposes students to a range of nonacademic sources and shows how different writing styles are effectively used, she said.

  • Have students write for specific audiences. At Melbourne’s RMIT University, students are tasked with preparing reports and presentations suitable for the wide variety of internal stakeholders and external clients they are likely to face in their professional roles, said David Smith, Ph.D., dean of the school of accounting, information systems, and supply chain. 

For example, faculty may ask students to write assignments in the form of informative yet concise tax advice for business clients or prepare succinct board-level reports that summarise key financials while simultaneously providing high-level analysis.

Faculty also encourage students to use techniques such as putting detailed information in appendices so they don’t overwhelm readers with complex data, Smith said, which allows readers to better focus on the big picture.

The most important thing for accountants to remember when writing “is to consider the audience and to think about what level of technical capability they can be expected to have”, said Smith. Being able to “convey the technical in a reasonably easy-to-understand way” can set a student apart, he said.

Encourage students to seek out support services resources on campus, such as a writing centre, learning centre, or library’s website, to help develop and tighten their writing skills. For instance, Smith said, RMIT University students have access to a dedicated website that offers peer and one-on-one expert sessions along with subject guides, apps, and software to help them fine-tune their work.

  • Give students a real audience to write for. Taking students out of the lecture hall to visit organisations also helps them visualise how to apply the theories they have learned in class to real-life situations while translating complex financials into practical, strategic advice, Moulang said.

Recently, she organised a visit to local animal rescue sanctuary Edgar’s Mission, where third-year management accounting students got to pet pigs while analysing the nonprofit’s performance metrics and operational challenges during the pandemic.

Her students then produced creative and informative reports for Edgar’s Mission’s board of directors that included balanced scorecards and performance measures and then discussed how these items could help the nonprofit reach its strategic objectives, she said.

“Having that care factor helps their writing. It helps them be more conscious of who their audience is and how important it is for accountants to speak in a business language that can be understood outside accounting,” said Moulang.

In Finland, Miihkinen takes a similar tack. For instance, one group of his first-year students met virtually with a local car dealership, discussed the issues the dealership was having, and spent months working as a group to develop solutions that they then presented to representatives of the company. He stressed communication skills throughout the course of that project, which students spent about six weeks on, by bringing the topic up in lectures and providing students with videos on oral and written communication skills. He and his fellow instructors also had students practice their presentations before they were finalised and encouraged students to vary their roles within their group so they all got practice in different areas. 

  • Consider the nonverbal side of presentations as well. As the digital disruption prompted by the pandemic has shown, students increasingly need to also improve their online technical and presentation skills as virtual communications become a core part of the corporate environment.

Coaching students to avoid pitfalls such as speaking in a monotone or standing with their hands in their pockets is important, said RMIT’s Smith, who encourages expressive movements and gestures backed by well-constructed presentations. He suggests they go online to find tips on how to improve their presentations, which he ultimately assesses on performance as well as content.

Miihkinen said the tips master’s students pick up in the academic world can put them in good stead for communicating better in the business world. He encourages his master’s students to refine the ways they give and respond to criticism. They give midterm and final presentations orally before a group, with one or two of their fellow students taking the role of moderators who introduce them, give constructive feedback, and encourage listeners to comment. Miihkinen reserves his comments until the end so students can take the lead, he said. Students’ performance in presentations, whether as presenters or participants in the discussion, is factored into their grades.

In exercises like these, “they learn to discuss issues and give criticism in a positive way. It’s certainly this kind of diplomacy that you also need in the workplace,” he said.

— Sophie Hares is a freelance writer based in Mexico. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor with the Association’s Magazines and Newsletters team, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.