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. 

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 today and download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.

No One likes a Know-it-All: Listen to Understand, Not to Respond

Blog 1Ask yourself this question, and try to answer honestly: do you listen to respond, or do you listen to understand? When someone is talking, how often are you not really listening but rather just waiting for your chance to say what you know? How often are you thinking, “hurry up and finish, I’ve got something profound to say.” You’re not alone.

Improv 101

The key to improvisation is listening to understand. When you’re not listening to those around you, how can you respond in a way that truly adds value to the interaction? It’s the same no matter the situation, a client meeting, speaking with your spouse, or meeting someone new – in each of these interactions we have a choice in how we’re going to engage.

A common game used to develop improvisational listening skills is called “Mr. Know-It-All.” It helps people drop their agenda, listen, and focus—to be in the moment. I sometimes introduce this game in my presentations by asking for three volunteers to sit up front and face the audience. “Together, these people are Mr. Know-It-All,” I’ll say, “and can answer any question—but just one word at time.” To demonstrate, I’ll ask something like: “Why is the sky blue?” I’ll turn to the first person, then the next¸ and the next – each providing a word as they attempt to construct a sentence to answer the question.

Inevitably, each volunteer has formed some kind of plan – or agenda – in their mind for how they want to answer. However, when the player before them doesn’t say something that fits their agenda they get flustered and have to scramble for a response.

There’s a strong desire for us to not make ourselves look dumb; you don’t want to be caught unaware. As a result, you come up with a script or an idea before the person in front of you has even finished – or started in some cases! However, contrary to what you may be thinking, when you allow yourself to listen, you’ll naturally respond appropriately.

When the volunteers in the Know-It-All game let go and just listen to what the other person says, and then build off of it to make the sentence as accurate – it always works, and is often pretty funny. They begin to listen to understand, not just to respond. They drop their agendas. They stop trying to control how they want this thing to go.

It’s hard, we all want to be heard, we all have a desire to be important. Listening to understand forces you to put your agenda aside, listen to what the other person is saying, and pause to gather your thoughts or let the other person reflect is listening to understand. And wouldn’t you know…the person you’re talking with feels understood, appreciated and is more likely to engage further.

Learn more about how listening to understand, as well as other improve principles, can improve your career by visiting where you can download a free chapter of my book, Improv is No Joke.

Learning to Speak the Official Business Language in a Way Others Can Understand

Blog 4 PhotoBusiness Innovators Magazine hosts regular interviews with the most innovative leaders in business on their radio show to feature industry influencers and trendsetters. Andy Curry, a bestselling author, multiple business owner, and contributor for CNN who covers topics such as successful business innovators and entrepreneurs in Business, Health, Finance, and Personal Development was gracious to host me a few weeks ago.

We talked at length (20 minute podcast here) on how improvisation creates positive results in leadership and in life. It is no surprise that technology is constantly changing the way jobs get done. For accounting professionals, our soft skills development is necessary for creating new business opportunities and ensuring we are keeping up with the times.

Forming and growing relationships is important for any finance professional. I ask all the time, “what business are we in?” And all the time I get answers like, “accounting” or “finance”. Yes, we provide a very important service, but behind those numbers are very real parts to a person’s life. When we take the language of business and state it in a way that clients can better understand, we begin to make better connections. And we do that by using the principles of improvisation.

Respect, Support, Trust, Listen, Focus, Adapt, and tie it all together with “Yes, And…”

Technical skills are important, very important. But if we don’t know how to go about relating to the people behind the numbers, we are selling ourselves short and leaving clients frustrated. The principles of improvisation, when we respect the clients, truly listen to them, focus on what goals they are wanting to achieve, and adapt to that, we are able to grow the relationship because we have found a way to bridge that communication gap that accounting jargon creates.

To learn more, Download a free chapter from my new book, Improv Is No Joke or email me at and I will come to you for your next speaking engagement.


The Importance of Speaking Simpler

Blog 2 PhotoWhen I start hearing buzzwords, I quit listening. After 20-something years in the CPA profession, I have heard all of the jargon and after a while it all seems to get jumbled up. How many times have you heard someone say something along the lines of, “Let’s set the bar high by going the extra mile to reach out and enlarge our bandwidth with new potential clients.”

I hear, “nothing but empty words that won’t keep my….oh, look – squirrels. What was I saying? Oh yea, keep my focus.”

There is no focused direction. It is a complex way of saying something vague. You might think that you sound smarter, but it can be difficult for your team to understand what you’re trying to convey. No one has any direction on next steps to take, priorities, or goals. When Warren Buffet sits down to write his letter to his shareholders each year, he writes as if he was speaking to his sisters in language they would understand. When leaders begin to speak in simpler and more precise terms, we can see the path to growth.

So let’s try this again:

“Let’s start a conversation on ways to reach more clients. I want to hear from everyone on areas we can expand into and how we can improve the relationships with our current clients who will generate more referrals.”

This version cut out the buzzwords and replaced them with effective communication. In doing so, you begin relating more to what your employees are looking for from a good leader. Speaking simpler doesn’t just make the direction you want to go in clearer, it also inspires creativity and participation from the very people you depend on day in and day out. They begin to get excited because there is real thinking and less room for personal interpretation as to what “going the extra mile” is. When the goal line is made clear, team work towards that goal takes on a renewed energy

Are you ready to launch the course of the general conversation in the workplace towards more positive results? Download a free chapter from my new book, Improv Is No Joke to catch the vision of speaking in simpler terms or I can come speak at your next event.