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Message (mis)understood?

Jul 28, 2020

Des Peelo explains why Chartered Accountants have a responsibility to work hard at good communications.

Accountants produce figures; that is our professional function. However, the ability to analyse and communicate those figures is the important role. The circumstances that give rise to the necessity of a report or analysis obviously range widely, but all result in the compilation and sharing of information to be understood by others.

If you are in an accounting position and want the world to understand and appreciate your good work, remember that accounting figures – no matter the circumstances – are no more than an outcome and are not in themselves a decision, a conclusion or an explanation.

Figures are just that, figures. They carry no intrinsic knowledge or purpose. The real skill for a Chartered Accountant (and in my opinion, we are not good at it) is to present an understandable interpretation and communication of the figures.
The higher or greater the decision to be made in business, and sometimes in politics, the more the figures will influence the decision. In my experience, however, you cannot assume – even at the highest levels of business or political life (or, for that matter, in a courtroom) – that all are capable of looking at an array of numbers and knowing what they mean.

Financial illiteracy is widespread and rarely admitted. I believe that this illiteracy explains many poor business and economic decisions. It is up to us as Chartered Accountants to work hard at good communications, and as a skill, it should be top of the continuing professional development agenda.

In presenting figures, remember the audience. What is the purpose of compiling the figures? Who will read them and what is expected of the audience having read the figures? This last question is most important of all. The accountant must be very careful indeed when it comes to interpretation and presentation as the outcome decision, based on the figures, may be significant capital outlays, a court judgment, a misdemeanour identified, a monetary claim pursued, and so on.

What sometimes gets lost in translation is the difference between presenting facts and presenting conclusions. It is important to know and understand whether the accountant, in presentation, is being asked to present facts for the audience to make a decision or draw a conclusion, or whether the accountant is being asked to make that decision or conclusion, as supported by the facts in the presentation. A muddled financial analysis without a clear purpose is of little help to anyone, but in my experience, this is a common scenario

The audience is not there to be impressed by the detailed calculations or workings in the presentation. A straightforward one- or two-page summary should clearly state the outcome as to the purpose of the presented figures. The detailed calculations or workings should always be shown as appendices and cross-referenced in the summary.

Compiling and interpreting figures usually involves making some assumptions. These too should be listed in a separate appendix. Figures are only as good as the likely validity of any assumptions underlying them. Outcomes do not always have to be precise. A range based on valid assumptions such as ‘best’ and ‘worst’, or ‘high’ and ‘low’ is often wise as singular figures, in themselves, can give an impression of being definitive.

An enduring bugbear in poor presentations is the numbering of paragraphs. The use of sections, sub-sections and Roman numerals can end up with the likes of “Paragraph 5,2(B)iv”. Most reports require cross-referencing such as “please refer to paragraphs 10 and 16 above”.

There is nothing to prevent someone from presenting an entire report as simply paragraph 1, 2, 3 and so on. There can be interspersed chapters or section headings as the report goes along, but the simple numbering is continued. Some readers will be aware that simple numbering is common practice in Germany, the United States, and within multinationals and international organisations. This is standard practice when it comes to emails, as it allows for easily cross-referenced responses.

Des Peelo FCA is the author of  The Valuation of Businesses and Shares, which is published by Chartered Accountants Ireland and now in its second edition.