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College presentations: bringing numbers to life

Six tips on how to wow and engage your audience with more than just data.

College accounting students are often on a steadfast quest to learn about numbers. They then must expound on what these figures mean to their professors, fellow students, and future employers and clients.

But how do accounting students talk about numbers so their listeners are engaged, and can grasp the meaningful data?

“We have to become translators of our very complex language so that others even within our profession can understand,” said Peter Margaritis, CPA, CGMA, a business consultant and book author. To be successful, he noted, CPAs need “to learn how to make ‘complex’ as simple as possible.”

However, students—and even CPAs—often make some common mistakes when presenting data: They speak too fast, fail to put numbers into context, misuse the numbers, or neglect to prepare for follow-up questions that might arise.

Margaritis, also a seasoned public speaker, and David Wood, Ph.D., an associate professor and Andersen Fellow at Brigham Young University’s School of Accountancy, offer the following tips to help CPAs and accounting students bring numbers to life:

  • Do your research. When making presentations that include numbers, conduct extensive research and don’t just skim the surface. Instead of merely stating a ratio, investigate further, Margaritis suggested. If revenue rose by 20% over the past three years, find out why. If a company’s current assets will cover liabilities five times over, dig deeper. “The question is, are we collecting on these receivables and are we selling this inventory?” he said. “Is that liquidity overstated or inflated?” If you can’t find the data you need online or elsewhere, call the company you are researching.
  • Describe the story. Wood likens number-filled talks to Hollywood movies, which feature an entire chronicle, not just one picture. “Numbers have little meaning in and of themselves, and are part of a bigger story,” he said. “Where did they come from, and how do you interpret them, and what are the questions that come after them? Connect the numbers to the rest of the story.” In other words, present the numbers in context for your audience.
  • Prepare to converse. Don’t just memorize your talk verbatim. Instead, know your material well enough to engage in a conversation with your listeners. “When you know it well, you don’t really have to think too hard about your response, and then when the conversation goes in different directions, you’re not thrown off,” Margaritis said. “It helps in building confidence.”
  • Speak plain English, not accounting jargon. Once you put numbers in context, relay the story so your listeners understand, and tailor it to their respective industry. “When you say the word ‘depreciation’ to a nonaccountant, they think that’s the value they lose in their car when they drive it off the new car lot,” Margaritis said. “Put it in plain English. Relate it to the client’s business, and have a simpler way of describing it.”
  • Be visual and use analogies. Graphs, charts, pictures, and videos spice up numbers. “If you can match up the data with a picture, the probability of it sticking increases dramatically,” Margaritis said. Also, draw comparisons to connect numbers to real-life situations. When talking about ratios, for example, discuss batting averages or other scenarios that involve numbers. Listen to TED talks for tips on how to do this, he suggested.
  • Expect follow-up questions. Accounting students should seek out opportunities to participate in mock cases or case competitions, where they present recommendations to pseudo audit committee members or others who often question the students’ findings. Students, Wood noted, need to be prepared for additional queries or disagreements about fluctuations in numbers or other issues. “As soon as they graduate, those mock cases become real-life situations,” he said.

By Cheryl Meyer


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