Tips for improving communication at work 

A CPA’s work increasingly depends on nontechnical skills that involve communication. 
by Eddie Huffman 
Published October 20, 2015

Tips for improving communication at workGood with numbers? Check.

Eye for detail? Check.

Know what kind of tone to use in a business email? Well … maybe not.

To be a CPA, you need serious game when it comes to math abilities, software skills, and knowledge of standards and regulations. But today’s CPAs spend a lot more time on customer service and team activities than their 20th-century predecessors did.

A CPA’s work increasingly depends on nontechnical skills: writing coherent email, collaborating with others, leading meetings, and giving presentations to colleagues and clients. Many of these soft skills involve communication, a subject Kevin Laird, CPA, takes seriously. He is president and COO of Booth-Laird Investment Partnership in Baton Rouge, La., and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

“Once you communicate something professionally in writing, it’s out there forever,” he said. “So that’s something I think long and hard about in every aspect, from social media to emails. It’s so important to really think about what you’re saying, to your superiors, your customers, your employees.”

Communicating effectively also means knowing when to bypass email and pick up the phone or schedule a face-to-face meeting, said Mandy K. French, CPA. She is a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy who runs her own business in Springdale, Ark.

“I’m a firm believer that anything negative needs to be communicated over the phone, at a minimum, but preferably in person,” she said.

Want to improve your professional communication skills? Here are a few tips to help you get started, whether you’re writing an email or giving a presentation.

Think twice before cc’ing.

When sending email, think carefully about who needs to be included in the conversation. Routinely copying too many people could mean your most important emails get overlooked by overwhelmed recipients.

“I call it the ‘reply all’ syndrome,” said Jill Schiefelbein, an author of Business and Professional Communication in the Global Workplace and owner of The Dynamic Communicator  “Everyone gets inundated with information that is not necessary and quite frankly, in most cases, not important. Only loop in people who need to be looped in, and if you need a response from people, be very direct about what type of response you need and at what time you need the response.”

Err on the side of formality in all professional communication.

Thanks in part to texting and social media, today’s communication tends to be much more informal than in the past. But there’s a danger in letting informality creep into business communication. “I just find that people can easily take offense when someone is perceived as too casual,” French said.

Tone can be hard to convey in email, so straightforward, formal language is the best way to make your point without being misunderstood.

“You can always become less formal, but it’s hard, once you establish a culture of informality, to become more formal,” Schiefelbein said. “Until you have that personal relationship developed with a client or someone in the office, maintaining that professional, more formal level of communication is important.”

Choose the right medium for your message.

For routine and task-oriented communication, email fits the bill. But when you’re relaying important news or discussing more interpersonal matters, make a phone call, schedule an appointment, or simply walk a few desks over.

French recalled a situation in which a manager sent an email announcing that an employee had won an award. Whether that’s the best tactic depends on the personality of the award recipient, she said.

“You couldn’t just walk down the hall in the morning and say, ‘Hey everybody, did you know so-and-so got this award?’” she said. “Depending on the person, it might be really embarrassing to them. But for some people, it’s meaningless in an email. It just feels like you checked it off.”

Prepare properly for presentations.

The most effective presentations come from speakers who know their material well, go beyond the content of their PowerPoint slides, and don’t get flustered by questions from the audience.

“Nowadays when people are listening to you give a presentation, they didn’t come there because they’re completely green to the topic,” Laird said. ”You can’t just click through the slides.”

For a deeper look at tips for presentations, see the Journal of Accountancy article “Go ahead, take the stage.”

Eddie Huffman is a Burlington, N.C.-based freelance writer.

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