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Writing for Success Some Tips for the Accountant.

Accountants frequently are perceived as accumulators of data rather than communicators of information. Accumulators view their roles as that of data collectors--they gather massive quantities of individual facts and figures--and report those data to clients/management. They are passive bystanders to the decision-making process. Communicators, on the other hand, view their roles as providing information--defined as knowledge gained through communication. Knowledge means only relevant data is presented to clients and/or management. Thus, communicators, in determining the content of management reports, become active participants in the decision-making process.

This article will help you determine the steps to follow and the techniques to use to become a better communicator. The focus is primarily on improving your written communications, such as reports and memos, but the same ideas may be used to improve your ability to communicate orally in presentations and speeches.

Step 1--Identifying Your Audience

It takes two to communicate. Are you writing to your supervisor? The client? The Board of Directors? Or a group of research engineers? Each of these individuals/groups has very different needs and backgrounds. You simply cannot provide the best information if you don't know who is reading your report.

Once you have identified your audience, then you can consider their individual needs in preparing your communication. When you were a student, you needed to consider the instructor who read your paper and why the instructor assigned that paper. Those assignments probably were designed to develop your abilities to research or learn about a topic and then communicate that knowledge to another. For example, if your assignment was to describe the methods used for inventory costing, you could probably assume your instructor already knew most of what you would write. Thus, the focus of your paper was on how much YOU had learned and how well you could communicate that to your instructor. Even basic inventory methods, such as FIFO, LIFO and weighted average that you knew the instructor understood, needed to be included.

In the workplace, you are the instructor--the person with the expertise. If you are asked to explain why research and development costs must be expensed as incurred, it makes a difference whether you are dealing with the vice president of marketing (whose background may be in sales) or the new research director (whose background may be in research and development (R & D)). You probably won't need to spend very much time explaining the huge uncertainty associated with the future benefits of current R & D efforts to someone with a background in R & D--they already know this. But someone with a background in sales may not be aware of this uncertainty. Note that the purely factual accumulator's response of "because generally accepted accounting principles say so", does not fulfill the communicator's job responsibilities.

Step 2--Organizing Your Thoughts

Virtually all communications follow the same pattern--introduction, body and conclusion. The introduction tells the reader about the author's purpose. It is analogous to looking at a road map and saying, "This is where I plan to go." The conclusion simply restates the obvious. It is akin to looking at the road map and saying, "Here is where I went," Thus, the introduction and the conclusion are very similar. The introduction tells the reader where you intend to go. The conclusion tells the reader where you have been.

If you recall the last time you heard a good speech, it probably followed this same pattern. That is, after the anecdotes or jokes designed to set the audience at ease and establish the tone of the presentation, the speaker probably described the topics he or she would be presenting. At the end of the speech, the speaker probably concluded by restating the topics he or she had covered during the presentation.

The lengths of the introduction and conclusion vary depending on the length of the related materials. A single sentence may suffice in a short, one- or two-paragraph memo. In longer reports, a paragraph, a page or an entire chapter may be more appropriate for both introduction and conclusion.

Gathering ideas--the body of the report. Of course, identifying where you are going and where you have been, are not nearly as interesting as the journey itself. The body is the heart of the communication. This is where you present the relevant data, the logic and the arguments supporting your conclusions. This is the most difficult part of any communication task and is the most time consuming. Gathering ideas involves identifying everything related to the issue of concern. This is the stage at which the accumulators excel.

Returning to that former assignment to discuss the methods of inventory costing: You would probably quickly identify FIFO, LIFO, weighted average, and specific identification. How about perpetual versus periodic? Job order and process costing? Retail inventory method? Maybe you should include Dollar-Value LIFO!

Don't rush this stage. It takes time to identify all the important issues you may need to discuss. It may be appropriate to gather ideas from other people as well. A group or committee could be very useful at this stage. Numerous software packages are available that assist with this idea generating phase; especially in large group settings.

Get organized--prioritize and prepare an outline. Not all ideas are created equally. For example, in your assignment to discuss inventory methods, there is little doubt that FIFO, LIFO, weighted average, and specific identification are basic concepts that probably should be discussed. But Dollar-Value LIFO is simply an application of LIFO to periods with changing prices. Does it really need to be discussed in the same detail as the basic methods?

Organizing your ideas requires you to prioritize them. This is the second most difficult step in communicating. This is where the communicator takes over from the accumulator. The communicator uses professional judgment to determine what is relevant and what is not. Thus, the communicator may decide that Dollar-Value LIFO is not relevant and omit it. The accumulator would simply overload the report by including Dollar-Value LIFO, along with every other inventory costing method.

As you prioritize your ideas, you will also decide which ideas are related to other ideas. Now is the time to prepare an outline. Make sure you start with an introduction and finish with a conclusion.

State and relate. An important concept that many writers overlook at this and subsequent stages is 'state and relate.' Every time you state something, make sure it relates to the rest of your document. For example, if the introduction states that the report will discuss the methods of inventory costing, make sure you do just that. If you write about FIFO, it clearly can be related to this purpose. If you then write about periodic and perpetual inventories, make sure you relate these methods to FIFO. Alternatively, if you begin by writing about periodic and perpetual inventories, and then present FIFO, make sure you relate FIFO to the discussion of periodic and perpetual inventories. Clearly, if you discussed the advantages! disadvantages of FIFO versus LIFO, this would not

relate to the purpose of discussing the methods of inventory costing, and it would be irrelevant. (This is not to suggest that the topic is not important, simply that it is not relevant given the purpose of the current communication.) Prio ritizing and preparing an outline should help you establish a logical flow of topics that helps you state and relate.

Step 3--Writing the Document

Once your outline is established, you are ready to begin writing. As you write, don't forget the needs of the person(s) who will be reading your document! Write specifically to the issues--don't resort to vague or general statements.

Headings and subheadings. Your outline should provide the necessary ideas for headings and subheadings in your document. In a short memo, you may not need any headings or subheadings. But, as your document becomes longer, headings and subheadings contribute more and more to the effectiveness of the document. As an example, just imagine this article without any headings and subheadings. It would be much harder to read. Adding headings and subheadings not only benefits the reader, but it helps the writer to focus on the subject. It's pretty hard to put in a heading for "FIFO" and then start discussing either LIFO or weighted average inventory methods.

Unsupported statements. Support your conclusions. Usually, a conclusion that is not supported will also fail the state and relate criterion. For example, after discussing the methods of inventory costing, you add the following to your discussion of LIFO: "But LIFO is preferred by many companies for tax purposes." This statement may be true, but tax effects were not part of your discussion of inventory costing methods. You have not presented support for this conclusion and it probably cannot be related to anything else in your prior discussion. Leave it out.

Use examples. One of the best ways to communicate an abstract idea is to provide a real-life example. You could use a pile of coal to illustrate how LIFO works, and then abstract that idea to how a cost flow can be separated from a physical flow of goods. If you really understand something well, you should be able to provide an example. If you can't provide an example, you probably don't understand it very well and that will be obvious to the reader.

Paragraph construction. Individual paragraphs deal with individual topics. They follow the same general pattern of communication; that is, introduction, body and conclusion. While numerous exceptions exist, a paragraph usually has a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a concluding sentence. The state and relate criterion applies here--each sentence should contain a separate but related thought. If the sentences aren't related to the same topic, you need to do some rewriting.

You may want to ask the reader a question to emphasize a point, such as, "But is this disclosure really useful?" DON'T ask the reader a question unless you have already answered it or intend to answer it in the ensuing discussion.

Details, details, details. Sweat the details--your professional reputation is riding on them. Typos and misspellings suggest that you do sloppy work. If you don't know how to spell well, use spell-checking software or seek assistance from someone who does. If you don't remember how to use punctuation, get help. (Keep these areas in mind for your future continuing education needs.) In any case, make sure you proofread your finished product, especially if you're relying on software to catch your errors. Very few software packages will catch the difference in context between to, too, and two, but they're all spelled correctly.

If you use acronyms (those wonderful things like GAAP, FASB and SEC), make a habit of writing them out the first time that you use them. That way, you won't forget to define the acronym. Remember that your purpose is to communicate and it is your responsibility to ensure that the reader knows what you mean. In addition, acronyms can be quickly overused and make reading more difficult.

Keep it simple. Yes, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) promulgates accounting standards. When was the last time you promulgated something on the job? Use language appropriate to your audience--big, flowery words simply obfuscate (confuse) your meaning. Where a specific technical meaning is not required, use the simpler word.

Don't forget to leave time for rewriting. Even with prioritizing and outlining, a first draft should never become the final draft! If you think you have a finished draft, try reading it out loud to yourself. If you stumble on a few words or run out of breath... well, you're not quite there.


The article presented a series of steps and techniques to help you become a better communicator. As you become more of a communicator of information and less of an accumulator of data, you increase your participation in the decision-making process and enhance your value to your clients, your company, and yourself.

David R. Koeppen is a professor in the Department of Accountancy at Boise State University in Boise, ID. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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Author:Koeppen, David R.
Publication:The National Public Accountant
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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