The Improv Is No Joke Podcast

Welcome to the Improv Is No Joke podcast hosted by Peter Margaritis, AKA The Accidental Accountant and author of the book 'Improve Is No Joke, Using Improvization to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life'. This podcast series is also available on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

Why Accountants Need to be Data Storytellers

We’ve all been in CPE with “that instructor.” You know, the one who drones on and on about FASB this or tax code that for hours and hours. When someone back at the office asks you what you learned, you draw a complete blank. 

Or maybe, you were “that instructor,” and when you looked out at the audience, you saw a sea of heads in the conference prayer, bent down over their phones. 

But then there was that time when your instructor peppered her presentation with stories. And not only do you remember those stories, but you remember the points she was making with the stories. 

When you combine numbers with stories, you’re taking the numb out of numbers. And when you take the numb out of numbers, what you’ve got left is e-r-s: Effective Relatable Stories. 

Why do we need to tell stories? Don’t the numbers speak for themselves?

We accountants are fluent in the language of accounting, a foreign language for most of our clients. We see the meaning in a balance sheet and appreciate the beauty of a set of perfectly reconciled books, but to our clients, it’s just a baffling mass of numbers. 

Technology today is changing the work we do. Artificial intelligence, bots, machine learning and automation mean that the repetitive number-crunching pieces of our jobs are going away, and what’s left for us will be what the robots can’t do. 

That means we need better communication skills now. We need to be data storytellers. 

What is a data storyteller?

In today’s high-speed world, business owners, taxpayers, and decision makers are in desperate need of the insights hidden in their numbers. Because we understand this foreign language of numbers and accounting, we can see the messages hidden in those numbers. Storytelling is the way we bridge the gap. 

Data storytelling is when we communicate what the numbers mean. It means using Effective Relatable Stories to convey the information in those numbers to the people who need that information. When we’ve succeeded in communication, they understand and remember what those numbers mean, and they can make the right decisions for their business or their financial future.

Now, some people confuse data storytelling with data visualization. They think that if they just add that pretty waterfall chart to their presentation with arrows pointing to all the key inflection points, then their job is done. All the numbers are right there. 

But they’re not the same at all. Data visualization is a tool we can use to communicate complicated accounting information. As a tool, you need to keep it simple enough for people to understand. And unless we explain those charts and graphs with Effective Relatable Stories that our audience understands, we haven’t communicated anything at all. 

Why do stories help us learn and understand?

Stories aren’t just for entertainment. Powerful stories evoke emotion and can inspire us to take action and make changes in ways that a PowerPoint data dump can’t. Those just put us to sleep like a lullaby.

If you want your audience to take action, they must be emotionally engaged. Master marketers know this: they know exactly the hook to use that taps into your raw emotion and convinces you to click on that Buy Now button. 

Neuroscience backs up the role of stories in helping us learn. When we hear a gripping story, that story lets loose a flood of dopamine in our brain. That’s right. Dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that gets us addicted to drugs, alcohol and gambling. The feel-good chemical. And when those brain circuits get lit up with an emotional charge, we learn better and remember more.

According to neuroscience researcher John Medina, author of Brain Rules, “Dopamine aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-It note that reads ‘Remember this.’”

Do you remember where you were last Tuesday at 9 am? Probably not. But I bet you remember in crystalline detail where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001, when you heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center. That’s an event you experienced exactly once, but you remember forever. 

That’s the impact an emotional charge can have on memory.

Contrast that with studying for the CPA exam, where you had to repeat the same material over and over to get it in your brain for the short time you needed to remember it. A few years later, and I bet you’ve forgotten much of what you learned. But emotionally charged memories stay with us forever.

Using stories to explain complex topics: a real-life example

Not convinced that you can use stories to make accounting interesting or relevant? Here’s an example of how I used an Effective Relatable Story to explain consolidations of variable interest entities when I was teaching an accounting and auditing update at the Arizona Society of CPAs. Consolidating variable interest entities is a complex topic that almost never fails to send audiences of accountants into dreamland, so here’s how I kept everyone engaged.

I asked the audience to raise their hands if they were married. About 80% raised their hands. Then I asked how many had a mother-in-law. I got a few snickers, and everyone kept their hands up. 

Then I told them to imagine their mother-in-law as a variable interest entity and showed a slide with an older woman labeled VIE. Then I said, “Your spouse wants your mother-in-law to move into your household, but you do not want your mother in law to move in. This is also known as consolidating into your household.” 

Now I had everyone’s attention, and many were smiling. “Your mother-in-law gets money from Social Security and a retirement account, and she loves to play the slot machine.” Next, I showed a picture of the six kids from The Brady Bunch. “Your mother-in-law has six children, who all contribute to her financial well-being. Your family contributes the most because your spouse is a high-school principal and loves to be in control.” 

“Let’s recap. Your spouse — the principal — wants to consolidate their VIE mother into your household balance sheet. You prefer that she not consolidate into your balance sheet. You prefer that she spend two months with each of her children, or her agents, so that no one has to consolidate her into their balance sheet.” 

Now when I return to Arizona to teach another course, at least one person will come up to me and say, “You’re the mother-in-law guy, right?” They still remember that one story that I told once several years ago. 

Next time you have to explain a complex accounting concept to a client, try putting it into terms that your client can relate to, and tell an engaging story around those relatable terms. At the very least, you won’t have numbed them with the numbers!

This article was adapted from my latest book, Taking The Numb Out Of Numbers: Explaining and Presenting Financial Information with Confidence and Clarity. 

Brain Science Tips to Engage Any Audience

Attracting — and retaining — an audience when you’re a speaker can be a challenge. People get distracted by phones, sometimes aren’t interested in your topic, or, worst of all, you feel like they don’t like you.

But there are pieces of brain science speakers can use to get the most of their time in front of an audience.

Dr. John Molidor, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and past president of the National Speakers Association board of directors, visited the “Change Your Mindset” podcast. And he was full of brain-science tips for speakers to incorporate into their presentations:

Mix story and emotion with data and facts

We’ve heard plenty about “left-sided” and “right-sided” brains (brains that are more analytical and data-driven vs brains that are more emotion-driven). But as a speaker, you have to learn to touch both sides. Our brains crave an integration of both pieces.

Some presentations and keynotes are naturally more numbers-driven or more story-driven. But if you find yourself leaning too far to one side, try targeting the other side of the brain.

“Talk to both hemispheres,” John said. “Tell the story. Show the emotion. Give the data. Give the numbers. Both of them the brain processes, and it actually would like to have both.”

Be consistent

It may feel natural to want to switch up aspects of your presentation sometimes — font, headers, symbols. But our brains naturally gravitate towards patterns. Once the brain is able to find that comfort in a pattern, it’s better able to pay attention to other things (like your presentation). If there’s no consistency to your presentation or slide show elements, your brain is going to inherently be too distracted trying to find a pattern that it doesn’t retain the actual information as well.

Use an F-pattern on your slides

No, this has nothing to do with using salty language.

Eye pattern studies have shown the ways in which our eyes naturally move when looking at something new. So presenters could benefit from using that science. Typically, our eyes move in a pattern that looks like an F: up and down, then left over the top, and then in the middle. When creating slides for a presentation, it can be helpful to keep that pattern in mind and keep the important text higher up.

Incorporate brain breaks for your audience

Naps to increase learning potential? That’s just one brain tip John shared. To put it simply, the human brain is not meant to be a machine when it comes to retaining information. We have to give it a break every now and then if we want it to actually perform optimally. One of the best ways to help your brain learn something, John says, is to give it time to rest directly after.

Of course, you don’t want your audience napping during your presentation. But you can still incorporate pre-planned breaks into your time on stage.

Cater to the brain’s need for visual elements

Use pictures to break up all the text you want to get across. “The visual cortex in the back of your brain is a huge amount of real estate,” John says — so take advantage of it.

“Death by bullet points” is not the way to go: So be sure to include pictures that will help illustrate all your main points.

Eliminate unnecessary words

Did you know that your brain sometimes naturally fills in words and letters that are missing? Even if two letters of a word are switched, your brain will naturally unscramble the letters and read the word as the correct word (like if “please” was spelled “plaese,” your brain would still read the word the same).

So how to translate that knowledge as a speaker? Take out unnecessary words — your presentation doesn’t need every “a” or “an.” John has even been experimenting himself with taking some verbs out, in an effort to pull audience members in and have them actively participating in the presentation.

Remember that your audience’s brains need oxygen

Much like the human brain needs frequent breaks to keep up its productivity, it also needs oxygen. John incorporates “fact or crap” sessions, where he invites audience members to yell out whether they think a particular sentence is true or not. Telling a joke (laughter brings in oxygen) also works, or encouraging everyone to get up and stretch.

Get out of your own head

This tip is the simplest at its core, yet often the hardest for speakers to do. If you focus in on the one person in the audience not paying attention — or not exhibiting overtly positive body language — instead of the 50 other people who are engaged, your brain will take notice. John equated this to your cells eavesdropping on what you’re sending your brain: “If you’re sending your brain sort of this negative information or positive information, your cells tend to pay attention to that,” he said, “which then can cause a chemical reaction.”

So staying out of your head (and all the worries and scenarios your brain has cooked up) will help in any speaking scenario. A particularly helpful mantra to remember is the one John uses before his speaking engagements: “I will tell myself all I can really do here is share what I know. That’s so much easier for me to go, ‘I’m just going to share,’ versus ‘I hope they like it,’ or ‘Are they getting it?’ or ‘Oh, you know I’m not getting the reaction I wanted.’ In the end, am I sharing it and am I doing it in a way that’s real? I’m not judging myself as I do it.”

To listen to the entire interview with Dr. John Molidor, you can click this link and download it from my website or you can download the episode on C-Suite Radio, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play. Just search Change Your Mindset with Peter Margaritis.


Storytelling in Business is a Great Strategy

Storytelling in business can be a rather misunderstood process. If you think business storytelling is like telling fairy-tales, think again. I’m not talking about stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, or Sleeping Beauty. Every day we are exposed to storytelling from major companies and their brands through commercials, ads, and online messages. Even product packaging tells a story. If you’ve ever watched a Super Bowl you have participated in one of the best examples of this kind of storytelling. Those commercials are designed to tell stories that connect on an emotional level with the viewer to drive buying habits. Telling stories in business is big business.

Do you remember the ad that ultimately changed the way Super Bowl commercials were designed and developed? It was Apple’s 1984 commercial introducing the Macintosh computer, and it revolutionized the way companies advertise. It was so innovative that Advertising Age, the “bible” for advertising agencies, named this commercial number one on its list of the greatest 50 commercials of all time. Without using a competitor’s name or even showing the new Macintosh, Apple told their story: IBM dominated the market, controlled its customers, and Apple was going to give them a run for their money. They tied it all back to George Orwell’s book 1984 and created a visual message that was disturbing and memorable. At his keynote address to Apple in 1983, Steve Jobs told the same story. IBM wanted it all and had aimed its guns at the last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue (IBM) dominate the entire computer industry? The whole information age? Was Orwell right about 1984?

Take a journey through YouTube and search for the top Super Bowl commercials of all time. Each one of them has some emotional effect on the audience. A few of my favorites are Pepsi’s commercial featuring Cindy Crawford, the Coke ad featuring Mean Joe Greene, the McDonald’s commercial featuring the showdown between Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, and the annual adorable Budweiser puppy.

A researcher at John Hopkins by the name of Keith Quesenberry predicted that the Anheuser-Busch puppy love commercial would be the winner of the best commercial in 2014. He and his research partner Michael Colson studied brands that sold products featuring cute animals or sexy celebrities. In a Harvard Business Review article titled The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool, Quensenberry states “that ads that told a complete story using Freytag’s Pyramid which is a storytelling structure that can be traced to ancient Greece.”

As outlined in the HBR article, the components of Freytag’s Pyramid are much like a five-act play which are:

Act 1 – Exposition: setting the scene by the introduction of characters and the setting.

Act 2 – Complication: conflict is introduced, and this conflict continues to build.

Act 3 – Climax: the height of the conflict and tension and this is where the story is at its most exciting.

Act 4 – Reversal: the main character begins to resolve the conflict.

Act 5 – Denouement: the conclusion of the story.

When stories follow this path, it creates a strong emotional response in our brains. Research shows that during tense moments in a story, our brain produces a stress hormone called cortisol, which allows us to focus. During cute moments of a story, our brain releases oxytocin, the chemical that elevates our connection and empathy. During happy moments our brains release dopamine, which makes us feel optimistic.

Storytelling and the chemicals that are released in our brains, also help to open our wallets and buy products from companies or give to charities, help us to change attitudes and beliefs, help us to empathize with others, and help us in the learning process by increasing retention and understanding.

The next time you prepare to engage with an audience (and the size of that audience can be from one person to a thousand people), craft your information into a compelling story. You will increase your success whether it’s a donation to not-for-profit, or buy a product from a company, or land that prospective client. Take the data that you have and apply the theory behind Freytag’s Pyramid to develop your compelling message through a story.

Knowing Your Audience: The Four Stages of Competence

Before developing a presentation you need to know your audience – what is the baseline for their current understanding of your topic. Try to determine what level of competence the audience possesses because it will have an impact on how you structure and deliver your presentation. I remember once when I was a staff accountant one of the senior managers was trying to explain a complicated concept to me. I just couldn’t quite grasp what he was talking about. My technical knowledge was not at his level, and he was not communicating with me at a level of my understanding. Both of us left that conversation frustrated.

Development of the four stages of competence occurred in the 1970s at Gordon Training International, a well-respected education and training consultancy. As a point of reference, this competency model has been attributed to Abraham Maslow but has not been found in any of his work.

The four stages of competence are:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence: The person doesn’t know what they don’t know, you know. An example of this is a new employee who recently graduated from university with a degree in accounting. They may have taken an auditing class, but they don’t know how to audit. They may have taken a taxation course, but they do not know how to fill out a tax form. The person just doesn’t recognize that there is a gap between what they know and what they need to know. The only way to move to the next level is for them to recognize their incompetence to the skill and have the desire to acquire the knowledge to master it.
  1. Conscious Incompetence: When someone begins to increase their standard of competence through repetition and practice, they move into the Conscious Incompetence quadrant.  They know that making mistakes and errors are integral to this learning process. For example, the new associate is learning about the auditing process by learning how to reconcile bank statements and receive feedback on their work. Feedback is critical to the learning process but when taken too personally can bruise some egos. That can create a negative mindset if not presented properly. It is the responsibility of the supervisor to deliver feedback in a positive light to avoid the negative mindset.
  1. Conscious Competence: Now the individual begins to have a deeper understanding of the skill necessary and can execute it with minimal errors. They have acquired the skills to be competent in their current role and have shown the ability to continue learning. It’s at this level where they may be a candidate for promotion. In the advancement process, part of the individual’s skill will revert to the unconscious incompetence.  Perhaps they are promoted on their increased technical knowledge but are still lacking the skills to manage a group of people.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  From previous experience, they should recognize this new knowledge gap and begin the process of closing it. Mastering each knowledge gap will help them accelerate to the next level.
  1. Unconscious Competence They made it! At this level, the person has extensive exposure to multiple facets of the business and, through practice, the skills needed to succeed are second nature to them. I tend to equate this to the job positions of chief financial officer, a partner in a firm or chief executive officer. With extensive depth and breadth of knowledge, solving issues becomes more intuitive. The lessons learned along the way are a point of reference for finding solutions.

Here’s another example I like to use: a golfer. The unconscious competence golfer is the one who is currently on the PGA or LPGA tour. They don’t have to think about the basics of golf: stance, grip, swing, etc. They visualize the shot, consider all variables than just swing the golf club with perfect tempo and rhythm, hitting the ball almost to perfection. Well, most of the time.  They maintain this level of excellence with consistent practice, and that is the key to remaining unconsciously competent.  Without regular practice, the person will drop back to the third stage.

Understanding your audience’s level of competence allows you to tailor your presentation to meet or slightly exceed the audience’s level of expertise. That alignment of what they know and what you are sharing allows you to create a conversation with the audience. When you connect with the group they are more likely to retain your message and be able to act on it. However, if we are talking about complex issues that the audience cannot relate to them, all we are doing is just talking over their heads.

We’ve all been in presentations where the presenter delivers highly technical information, using insider jargon and unrecognizable acronyms. The audience has deer-in-the-headlights looks, and are not engaged with the speaker, let alone having a conversation.  Tailor your presentations to meet the competency level of the learner. If you talk about any issues that the audience does not relate to, all you are doing is talking over their heads.  You’ll have greater success in connecting with them and raising their level of retention.

Two Memory Techniques to Help Create a Conversation Experience

There are critical achievements that all professional speakers share. You want to be recognized as a subject matter expert in your field. Someone who is a polished speaker, who creates a “conversation experience” and connects with every person in every audience. You want to be the best, and you can achieve those goals. But you need a strategy. One of the strongest strategy techniques for creating conversation experiences with audiences is a form of memorization.

I don’t mean memorizing your entire presentation, repeating it verbatim or reading from a slide presentation. This strategy does involve some actual memorization but also visualization and memory triggers. Fair warning: This technique takes practice.

To begin to learn this technique, write the opening and closing paragraphs for your presentation. They must be meaningful for your audience. You want to grab their attention in the beginning and offer a call-to-action when you close. Then memorize those two paragraphs word-for-word. Practice them until you are able to deliver them perfectly. Knowing your opening paragraph by heart can help calm your nerves which helps increase your level of confidence. Memorizing your closing paragraph will help you “stick the landing” and end your presentation on a high note. Your call-to-action is the key message point, the seed, you have been planting throughout your presentation.  You want the audience to remember it, and act on it.

Now it’s time to learn and incorporate advanced memory techniques.  The method that many speakers use is called the memory palace, and includes the use of mnemonics. We all have used mnemonics to learn new and sometimes complex things. Who doesn’t remember learning the alphabet by singing the ABCs? That’s mnemonics, and it is used to develop your memory palace.

The memory palace “is an imaginary location in your mind where you can store mnemonic images. The most common type of memory palace involves making a journey through a place you know well, like your home or office. Along that trip, there are specific locations you always visit in the same order.” These places are where you put the mnemonic images you want to remember. It’s not as difficult as it sounds. Here is how you build your memory palace.

  1. Become an architect and decide on the blueprint for your memory palace.  Personally, I find that using my home’s design is the best – I have lived in the same house for over 20 years.  I am very familiar with the layout and navigating through the house is intuitive, I don’t have to think about it.  Draw your blueprint on a piece of paper showing all the major rooms, entries and exits. You will add details to this blueprint as you develop your palace.
  2. Look at your blueprint and decide on the route you will take every time to get from the entry to the exit.  Be deliberate in your path and create a logical route through your memory palace.
  3. Now memorize the route you will consistently take. For example, I enter my memory palace through the front door of my home, move into the hallway, then head to the family room, then to the kitchen, then to the living room and leave through the back door.
  4. Make a list of the key points in your presentation that you want to remember and list them in the order that you want to present them.
  5. Place one presentation key point in each particular location in your memory palace; actually write that point on your blueprint.  Then list two words that are specific details related to your key points in each location.
  6. Create a mental image of each of your key points and exaggerate the picture to help in memorization.  The use of humor in the exaggeration will help you remember the point you want to make a lot easier.
  7. Then begin to practice by visualizing your path through your memory palace and bring in mnemonics to memorize the list.  Many practice runs will be needed to train your memory and capture your entire presentation.

Put these two memorization methods together and run through your presentation.  Your opening paragraph is represented by the front door, and your closing paragraph is where you exit the building. When you visualize your path through the building, think about the mnemonic memory of the key points and what you want to say about them. Practice your presentation using this method until you comfortable move from the entry to the exit. Keep your blueprint handy as a reference tool so you stay on the planned route through your memory palace.

The day of your presentation, take your written memory palace with you, and put it in a place where only you can see it, maybe on a podium. Use it as a backup plan to keep you on track, just in case you forget where you are in your presentation.

You many need to invest a considerable amount of time to get comfortable with the memory palace method but there is a big payoff: You can move from a lecturer to a conversational presenter.