By Peter Margaritis, CPA, CSP

We’ve all been in CPE with “that instructor.” You know, the one who drones on and on about revenue recognition this or code section 280E that for hours and hours. When someone back at the office asks you what you learned, you have the “deer in the headlights” look.

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

But then there was that time when your instructor showered his presentation with stories. And not only do you remember those stories, but you remember the points he 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 business accounting, a foreign language for most of our clients, customers and associates (audience). We see the meaning in a balance sheet and appreciate the beauty of a set of perfectly reconciled books, but to our audience, it’s just a tsunami 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 disappearing. What’s left for us is what the robots can’t do; to communicate the story behind the numbers.

That means CPAs need better communication skills now. We need to be financial storytellers.

What is financial storytelling?

In today’s high-speed world, business owners, taxpayers and decision-makers are in desperate need of the insights hidden in their numbers. As CPAs, we understand that numbers don’t move by themselves. People move the numbers. We can see the messages hidden in those numbers, and financial storytelling is the way we bridge the gap.

Financial 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 financial storytelling with data visualization. They think that if they add that pretty chart with a picture to their presentation, along 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 understand, 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 act and make changes in ways that a PowerPoint data dump can’t. Those just put us to sleep as an anesthesiologist does.

If you want your audience to act, they must be emotionally engaged. Master marketers know this: they know exactly the right hook to use that taps into our raw emotion and convinces us 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 and “Brain Rules” author John Medina, “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 Monday at 9 a.m.? 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, 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 A&A update at an accounting conference. Consolidation of variable interest entities is a complex topic that rarely 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 (VIE) 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 move 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” and said, “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 that conference 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.

The next time you must 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!

Peter Margaritis, CPA, CSP is a speaker, author, humorist and self-proclaimed chief “edutainment” officer for The Accidental Accountant™. Margaritis is a nationally renowned speaker and helps CPAs increase their profitability by strengthening their business success skills and improving morale through better communication. This article is adapted from his book, “Taking The Numb Out Of Numbers: Explaining and Presenting Financial Information with Confidence and Clarity.” Contact him at peter@petermargaritis.com.

Note: This story originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of SumNews, the magazine of the Massachusetts Society of CPAs.