By Deanna C. White
As any CPA knows, trying to explain accounting, the "language of business," to clients can sometimes be a difficult task. Now try to imagine explaining complex financial topics, like compounded interest, to a troop of Boy Scouts and you'll really have a sense of just how impenetrable a technical language barrier can be.
But this May, accounting students in the Beta Alpha Psi (BAP) chapter at Utah State University's (USU) Jon M. Huntsman School of Business won themselves a trip to the national Beta Alpha Psi 2013 Best Practices Competition by proving they could use deft communication and out-of-the-box thinking to overcome the challenges of communicating technical business information.
The students scored two out of three first-place victories in the categories of imagination and innovation, which qualified them to compete at the BAP national competition to be held this August at the BAP annual meeting in Anaheim, California.
It's perhaps no surprise USU students took first place in "imagination" and "innovation," said Bonnie Villarreal, BAP advisor and director of the master's program in accounting at the Huntsman School of Business, since Huntsman is known for encouraging original and inventive thinking among its students.
"This is rewarding to us because one of the four areas Huntsman emphasizes is entrepreneurial thinking," Villarreal said. "We want our students to look for innovative solutions, and that's exactly what they did."
BAP is an international honors society that seeks to bridge the gap between students and accounting professionals. Each year, BAP chapters located among universities nationwide have the opportunity to showcase projects they have developed during the year at the annual Best Practices Competition, which is sponsored by Deloitte.
The projects are designed to help accounting students develop professional skills and serve the community. This year's Rocky Mountain regional competition drew teams from six states, including teams from Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, and the University of Denver.
The theme of the competition was "Dreams of Tomorrow Becoming Reality for Today."
Each chapter was charged with developing a project or practice in one or more of three broadly defined areas – innovation, imagination, and inspiration – which they presented to judges and other chapters at BAP regional meetings across the country.
The imagination category required BAP students to design a creative program aimed at helping improve their written communication skills. To fill that assignment, USU students held a workshop and subsequent cover letter/resume writing competition that helped students improve their business communication skills by writing unique cover letters, then adapting those letters to specific companies and job opportunities.
"A student's cover letter may at best get only ten seconds of attention from a potential employer, so we wanted to ensure our members were equipped with the right tools to capture that attention in a short time frame," said Jesse Hamilton, USU accounting student and president of the BAP chapter.
While the imagination project challenged their written communications skills, team members said it was the innovation project that truly tested the depth and breadth of their ability to communicate with others.
The innovation project required students to step beyond their usual repertoire of recruitment-related, soft skills expertise to present technical knowledge to an audience of laypeople. In USU's case, they chose what some might consider the most unlikely and decidedly non-accounting audience – a contingent of ninety local Boys Scouts trying to earn their personal management merit badges.
Even Hamilton, an aspiring CPA who is also a former member of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division and a veteran of the war in Iraq, said the concept of explaining abstract financial topics like budgeting and money management to a group of teenagers gave him pause. But he said the experience taught him and his fellow BAP officers an invaluable lesson about the importance of communicating technical language.
"Accounting is really its own language inside the business world . . . to people [who aren't accountants], it can be like a foreign language. I never realized just how thick this barrier could be until I said the words 'compounding interest' to this group of Boy Scouts," Hamilton said. "At first, I was met with the silent sound of confusion. But after I gathered my thoughts, I broke it down into terms they could understand. Their immediate feedback was very important in learning how to teach people who don't have an accounting background."
The communication lessons BAP students learned in their exchange with the Boy Scouts were so profound, the students actually chose to incorporate them into their winning "innovation" presentation at regionals, Hamilton said.
USU students began their presentation with two BAP officers speaking in their native Chinese and Romanian to underscore the potential gulf in understanding created by a language barrier.
Clearly, they made their point – a point they hope to make again at the national 2013 Best Practices Competition in August.
But whether they win or lose at the national level, USU students say they have already scored a great understanding that will help them succeed throughout the course of their future careers as CPAs.
They know exactly how complex "accounting-speak" can sound to the uninitiated, and they know that stepping into the mind of the audience is as important as conveying technical knowledge to help clients understand their finances.
"In my career as a CPA, I will undoubtedly find myself in a situation where the technical knowledge of accounting will need to be presented, discussed, or reviewed," Hamilton said. "Understanding who it is you're talking to and being able to translate this technical knowledge into simple terms will greatly reduce any communication barrier that exists."