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.

Train Every CPA to be Anticipatory & Future-Proof with Rebekah Brown, CPA

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“It’s really about being able to pivot and move to those future-ready skills,” Rebekah said. “Also, developing communication and leadership skills will set you apart as a professional, and that will be the game-changers in success.”

All three of these phases will be crucial, moving forward — because the business is changing, regardless of whether or not you’re ready for it. 

For example, Rebekah told the story of a group of chief accounting officers she spoke to, who worried that their auditors were falling behind because of a lack of future-ready skills. 

“They were saying, ‘We’re doing robotic process automation in our accounting department, and our auditors don’t know what to do with it,’” she said. “They need to level up and get ready because we’re doing it regardless.” 

The same mindset needs to embrace in any technological innovation in the accounting industry. You may not be ready to switch over from your 10-key to Excel spreadsheets, and you may not be interested in learning how artificial intelligence (AI). But accountants’ lack of adjustment doesn’t slow down the continued innovation. It’s happening, no matter what.

And being able to adapt isn’t just about making your life today easier. It’s about finding new ways to grow for tomorrow.

“CPAs spend so much time, heads down, versus looking up and seeing what is in front of us and beyond. CPAs are completely missing out on huge opportunities to grow,” Rebekah said. “And it’s that mindset shift of ‘Yes, I need to do my day-to-day job, And part of my day-to-day job needs t be looking out to the future.” 

If you want to listen to the entire episode, please click here.

Accountants, It is Time to Think Like a Marketer with Kate Colbert

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Thinking like a marketer can be difficult when most of us — well, think like accountants. Marketing isn’t a space in our brains; we use that often. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to, or don’t feel like we need to. Other times, it’s because we don’t even know where to start. 

Luckily, I had a guest on the podcast who’s expertise is in just that. Kate Colbert is the author of “Think Like a Marketer: How a Shift in Mindset Can Change Everything for Your Business,” as well as the owner of Silver Tree Communications, a full-service marketing company. 

Kate has (thankfully) broken down how to think like a marketer into five simple steps — which we can all apply to our businesses. Without further ado, because, as Kate says, “the perfect time to start thinking like a marketer is now”: 

1. Communicate for connection and meaning, not just to transact sales.

Communication should be the top priority for anybody doing business, whether you’re in the accounting world, retail, restaurants, or publishing. Communication is about adding meaning and value to potential customers – not just trying to snag a check from them. 

For example, most people only hear from their accountant around — you guessed it — tax season. They get a simple email reminding them to make their appointment, and maybe a follow-up or two. However, outside of that season, customers typically aren’t getting much year-round value from their accounting firm. Also, it doesn’t have to be that way. Blogs, podcasts, and newsletters are all great ways to engage your clients (present or future ones) and add meaning to your relationship, without asking them for a sale of some kind.

When a change in the tax code occurs, accountants need to reach out to their clients who will be impacted by this change.  For example, “There is a change in the tax code, and I would like to have a conversation on its potential impact on your business.  Can we meet for cup of coffee to discuss?” 

“The accounting professionals who are finding ways to create meaningful conversations are the ones that are creating sustainable businesses for the long haul,” she said. “And (they’re) capturing a lot more value to the bottom line because they can raise their prices because they’re [bringing more value to their clients].”

2. Live and die by your client’s insights.

Are you paying attention to what your clients are saying? What they like and dislike, what they want to see more or less? If not, you’re leaving tremendous marketing opportunities on the table. 

“What’s interesting to me about financial professionals is that, here’s a group of subject matter experts who are all about the data, right?” Kate said. 

However, how many accounting firms are invested in the data of what their customers think? What’s your net promoter score? How is it trending? 

Give a survey, or set up a focus group — you glean your information is up to you. Make this a priority in your marketing strategy. Otherwise, you’re not going to know where to go.

“Once you have those clients insights, you know what pivots to make in your firm to be able to grow,” Kate said.

3. Market in a way that’s strategy-religious and tactic-agnostic. 

So many companies — accounting and otherwise — take the opposite approach than this. They’re all over the place with their strategy, but married to one tactic, just because they think that’s what the rest of the industry is doing. 

The trick is in the opposite approach: Be married to your strategy (once you do the front-end work to come up with a robust one). Try a little bit of everything when it comes to the tactics — aka the vehicles by which you deliver your strategy. 

Maybe the tactic is a video series, a workshop, a television commercial, or a newsletter series. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. However, the trick is to experiment with a variety of approaches and see how best to deliver your strategy. Where are you seeing the most engagement, or the most leads coming from where? Pay attention to the numbers, and start devoting resources to the tactics that are producing results (and pulling resources from tactics that don’t).

“It’s about being willing to try new things,” Kate said. “And then walk away from new things.”

4. Create cultures and processes that align with your brand.

If your firm has a brand associated with never surprise-invoicing people, then you should, as a firm, build billing processes and packages around that core value. According to Kate, structure your pricing in a way that there’s some cushion. Just in case people call and ask for further advice, you don’t feel like you’re giving it away for free. 

Also, if you have a brand focused on being accessible and comfortable, and not nickel-and-diming the client, then build a culture surrounding that. An example Kate used is Southwest Airlines. This is an airline that’s built its brand around never being late, and not putting more costs on the customers’ shoulders. When a Southwest plane lands, all the crew going around and cleaning so that the aircraft can be used again for its next flight on time. Southwest built a culture in its employees around its “never late” branding, and that shines through in their marketing.

“What are we willing to do differently to deliver on the story that we’re telling the marketplace about what makes you a better accounting firm than the accounting firm down the street?” Kate asked.

5. Do everything in service of maintaining a virtuous cycle of creating value for the client while capturing value for you. 

This last marketing value is related in a way to the first: It’s all about creating value. Kate states, “that might mean giving things away for free. If giving something away for free is going to land you even more business eventually, then it’s a good cycle to get into.”

“It’s about can you create value for people, not just upfront when you’re trying to win them, but continuously, how do you keep creating value?” Kate said. “But how do you capture it back? We’re all in business to stay in business. So it’s not about giving it all away for selling it for too cheap. It’s really about figuring out how do you make sure that you’re pricing yourself right.” 

Much of this value comes back to the concept of “delighting.” How do you not just serve your clients, but delight them? Whether that’s the atmosphere, you create within the office, the gift that you give a new client, or that phone call informing the client of a tax law change.  How do you delight your client enough to where they not only want to keep coming back, but they also want to bring you quality referrals? 

Strategically doing this — in a way that eventually brings money back to your bottom line — is how to create a winning marketing strategy (and business). 

“You can’t create more value for your clients, or future clients, or associates, or whomever you serve if you’re not capturing money back to the bottom line,” Kate said. “If you’re constantly working your marketing, your business is going to be around as long as you want it to be. Then you can retire and go buy a yacht.”

Click here to listen to the entire interview

Changing The Mindset of the Construction Industry

When it comes to accounting in 2019, it’s important to move away from the “this is the way it’s always been done” mentality. Also, perhaps nowhere is that philosophy more prevalent than in the construction industry.

I chatted with someone who knows this better than anyone – Owen Wyss, the Financial Controller at Thompson Concrete Construction, as well as the Vice-Chair of Finance for the Ohio Society of CPAs. Part of Wyss’ job is getting people within the industry to think outside the box and find new, more efficient ways of working with the numbers than how it’s “always been done.”

“It’s a different world,” Wyss said. “And a lot of people when they’re interviewing an accountant for a construction business, nobody can figure out the debits and credits. There are still debits and credits. That’s just a given. Anyone can pick it up that’s got a good accounting background, but it’s a different world from the perspective that it’s a different way of doing business. There’s not much planning. There is a lot of, ‘That’s always the way we’ve done it.’”

The different managerial levels within the construction industry are partially to blame for why accounting within the industry requires a different way of thinking. With owners, contractors, and sub-contractors, there are various self-interests all vying for priority. This can complicate everything, especially within the finance department.

According to Wyss, aligning all these self-interests is the only way to move the industry forward, and to cut costs. For as long as different self-interests are pitted against one another, construction companies are going to struggle with efficiency.

“Owners are pushing margins lower, you know, which obviously should drive the general contractors to push costs lower, which ultimately should drive the sub-contractors to push costs lower,” Wyss said. “But I believe what you’re seeing is just shrinking margins because there’s not a great effort to look at how we can make construction more efficient.”

To increase profitability within the construction industry, Wyss said it’s helpful to take a look at a couple of examples in other industries.

“I’ve been talking to our guys, our leadership here locally, just about the Toyota way and Honda way a lot, and how they worked with their manufacturers and subcontractors that weren’t within their plants and forced down their ways to realize better margins and more profitability,” Wyss said.

Wyss also floats his ideas about how to streamline accounting within the construction industry from his other leadership positions: He is on the board of the Construction Financial Management Association and is the Vice-Chair of Finance for the Ohio Society of CPAs.

Just like he does from within his industry, Wyss pushes his professional organizations to step outside of the way things have “always been done.”

He’s active in trying to transition organizations he’s a part of away from the standard individual “membership” model and more towards an organizational membership model.

“I think the other big change and evolution that we’re going through, and this is going to take years to perfect… moving from compliance-based learning to a place where we’re working and consulting with organizations on their training needs and bringing customized learning solutions to them. From that perspective, you can see us moving slightly away from our membership model and even more towards mainly an industry or business model.”

Transitioning any organization from the way things have “always” been done to how they will be done in the future can be a process – whether you’re part of a construction company, or on a board of a professional organization. However, starting that process sooner rather than later – and having someone like Wyss on board who’s pushing change from the beginning – can be hugely helpful.

Click here to listen to the entire podcast interview with Owen Wyss.

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. 

Negotiating with Improv

Blog 6Negotiation skills are critical to be successful in life. Whether your negotiating with a toddler, or an important prospect for your firm, knowing how to reach a win-win scenario takes skill. Conducting a successful negotiation requires six major skills—and those skills are really based on the principles of improvisation.

  1. Take your ego off the table.

To succeed in negotiations, we need to take the egos off the table and drop our agendas long enough to truly listen—and with respect for all involved. Don’t come in assuming you have the right answer. Negotiation is an activity between you and another person – not you and yourself.

  1. Respect the other party.

This goes right along with the previous principle of taking your ego off the table. Take the time to learn about who you’re negotiating with. What is important to them? What are they trying to accomplish in negotiating with you? Doing this will help you come to the negotiation prepared to comprise, and feel good about it.

  1. Be in the moment (focus).

As I have stressed in other posts, it is important to be committed to the moment you are in. As an actor, if I’m asked to be a tree – well, I’d better commit to being a pretty great tree. The same goes for your negotiation. Come prepared, come willing to listen to the other party and be prepared for the unexpected. You can only do these things if you are focused and committed to the moment.

  1. Listen to the other party’s needs and wants.

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of listening to understand, not to respond. Of all the situations where that is important – this would be one of them. And remember, this is not just listening with your ears, but with your eyes. Especially important in negotiations is the ability to read emotions and feelings of those involved. Listening, watching, and understanding what the other party needs and wants will help you respond effectively.

  1. Adapt to the situation.

You’ve done your research on all the different possible arguments against your position, you’ve studied out and tried to understand the party you’re negotiating with and you are committed to the moment, you should automatically be a shoe-in to “win” – or get what you want from the negotiation, right? Well, maybe – but you still don’t know what exactly the other party wants, which is why listening is so important so that you can then ADAPT to any unforeseeable changes. It’s just a fact of life, things are unpredictable. So as paradoxical as it sounds, try to prepare yourself for the unexpected – be focused on the moment and go with it as it comes, being confident that you’ve put in the effort to be prepared as much as possible.

  1. Yes, and…

When you do your homework and are able to identify the possible “yes, but…” statements that will most likely be made, you can create strategies to provide “yes, ands…” for each of those concerns. By recognizing a potential objective, you can create a solution that diffuses the issue.

Learn more about how you can leverage improv to improve your career and future negotiations – visit www.improvisnojoke.com today and download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.