At a glance
There is much more to accounting than numbers. Good storytelling is crucial and a highly prized skill in a field where making the connection between numbers and language is an art form.
The key is to make people care about your writing. While this may sound tricky in a world that appears to be more about spreadsheets than semicolons, money is a deeply personal topic.
This means there are many ways to engage an audience.
“Accountants need emotional intelligence and empathetic reasoning to connect to others,” says Nick McGuigan FCPA, professor of accounting at Monash University.
“We use a language that is technically and numbers that are not comfortable for everyone. This requires translation,” McGuigan explains.
This means being able to explain the numbers’ context and being able to convey a demanding situation’s emotional and human elements.
“We need to be able to process complexity and technical jargon that explains what we mean in everyday language,” he adds.
Good writing should tell a story.
“Stories persuade a client to do something because they don’t trigger resistance. We relax and open our minds when we hear stories.
“A storyteller isn’t challenging our opinion – they’re simply relaying what happened to someone else,” explains Steven Lewis, director of copywriting agency Taleist.
Visualising the world through numbers
Stories are just one tool in an accountant’s writing arsenal. Being able to use graphs and diagrams to represent complex ideas is equally important.
This is an area known as data and information visualisation. As its name suggests, data and information visualisation is an interdisciplinary area that concerns the way data and information is represented graphically.
It requires accountants to see the bigger picture, McGuigan says.
“It allows us to see a problem, or the world, through multiple perspectives. We can learn the technicalities of data and information visualisation through software applications and upskilling programs.”
McGuigan believes it is critical to emphasise thought processes.
“Integrated ways of thinking open narrow viewpoints and enable us to see the bigger picture. We learn to value critical approaches, integrate the different components of a problem and appreciate the holistic nature of business decision making.”
This involves three components:
Complexity involves recognising the complex nature of problems and practice and viewing them from multiple perspectives. This means we can recognise complex relationships, visualise them, and appreciate ambiguous, contradictory and incomplete information.
To achieve this, diversify work teams and encourage debate, discussion and multiple views of data to inform problem solving.
Adaptability is about learning to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. This involves looking at problems in new ways and recognising different approaches are required.
Open-mindedness is a willingness to see another viewpoint and being open to different interpretations.
Back to basics
Diagrams and numbers must be paired with good grammar so that they properly grab the audience’s attention.
While many people learned writing rules at school, the good news is that there are many ways to break them so that your writing is meaningful.
With conjunctions, for instance, “Starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’ is completely acceptable these days, when used in moderation, and will allow you to create shorter, snappier sentences”, says Kat Elizabeth, a branding strategist and director of Magnetic Brand Co.
In fact, Elizabeth says shorter sentences can be really short, even one word. Really.
“Paragraphs can and should, in the case of emails and social media, also be short. Bullet points can be incorporated to help with this, too.
“Varying the length of your sentences breaks up the monotony of long-form content and creates a rhythm that’s pleasant to read and fun to write,” she explains.
If you come up against writer’s block, says Elizabeth, try using voice notes and record yourself saying what you want to get across. Then, listen back and transcribe your words.
“This is also helpful if you are used to writing in a formal tone, and you are trying to sound more conversational.”
Before you start writing, create a brief for yourself that answers three questions: who is my reader, what do I want them to know and what do I want them to do?
“This helps you get straight to the point. Once you’ve finished drafting, read your words back and see if anything has slipped in that doesn’t fit your brief, then cut it,” says Elizabeth.