While I have an obvious bias, it seems to me that the term “forensic accounting” is about as sexy as accounting gets. Immediately your audience envisions the latest episode of “CSI: Wherever” and a lone accountant amidst a maze of yellow crime-scene tape, dusting fingerprints off of a 10-key. Not surprisingly, this isn’t entirely accurate. And while there’s a variety of skills and general interests that can go a long way toward advancing one’s career in forensic accounting, one of the most critical skills is universally useful: communication.
Obviously communication will help any career path all along the way, but it can make or break the usefulness of a forensic investigation at the most important point of the process – the final delivery. When forensic accountants are brought into a matter, it is their job to dig deep, gather the info, sort through the mess, and unravel whatever tangled web exists in all its complexities in order to get to the bottom of anything that may be amiss. But all of this effort, all of the intuition, all the “smoking guns” prove useless if an accountant gets on the witness stand as a financial expert during a criminal or civil trial and puts the jury to sleep with pages of general ledgers or rambling monologues peppered with “EBITDA” and other scintillating accounting jargon.
Accounting-speak can be overwhelming (or underwhelming) to even the average business mind. Forensic accountants have to consider the fact that their audience is either (1) a judge who is very intelligent but likely specializes in words, not numbers, or (2) a jury of peers ranging from high school dropouts to PhD’s – most of whom are groaning inwardly and wishing they had been picked for a murder trial when they see an accountant taking the stand. This is a tough crowd! The most effective testimony puts focused effort into simplifying any calculations, selecting solid analogies, and making good use of graphics – all while speaking in “layman’s” terms. In short, great forensic accountants must be able to stretch themselves to their greatest level of technical and accounting expertise to sort out a complex problem, and then explain the story in a concise and convincing manner – to grandma.
So what can you do to prepare yourself for the forensic accounting field? Buff-up those communication skills! If you’re in school, bite the bullet and sign up for the often-dreaded public speaking class. It will help you get more comfortable not only with speaking, but also with watching your audience reactions and attention-levels as you talk. If you’re out of school, sign up for a local toastmasters or other community program to help increase your exposure to public speaking Even better, start offering to speak in front of groups such as high school accounting classes on topics where you’re already comfortable. These steps can feel like big hurdles for anyone, but you’ll never regret the things you learned after gritting your teeth and giving it a shot!