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Sean Stein Smith
Five tips for better business writing

Finance can demonstrate its value with more thought-provoking communication.

January 9, 2014
by Sean Stein Smith, CPA, CGMA

Accounting and other financial personnel are often hired for technical expertise, quantitative training, and the detail-oriented skill set with which they perform work processes. A lack of effective communication can often lead to lost value, misinterpreted messages, and decreased productivity. Accounting and functional finance groups are being asked to provide assistance and expertise for an increasing number of corporate initiatives. This can represent wide-ranging opportunities for professionals willing and able to embrace the changing role of the corporate finance function from reporting to one of business partner.

While meeting face to face is often the best way to ensure clear communication, with phone conversations and virtual meetings coming close behind, written communication is sometimes the most viable option. Because of time differences, conflicting work schedules, or personal preferences, email and memos still play a prominent role in corporate culture. A lack of effective communication can lead to increasing unwillingness of other departments to include the finance function, which can deprive the company of the insights that would have been provided by finance personnel while simultaneously marginalizing the finance function.

Finance’s opportunity

How can finance improve business writing and communication skills to deliver better value?

With the rising cost and complexity of financial regulation, taxation, and global business practices overall, finance professionals who are also able to succinctly communicate ideas to other departments are in demand. The ability to combine technical matters and concise writing will enable finance professionals to reaffirm the value they already provide to the firm. Here are five ways finance professionals can improve business writing:

  • Give the readers a reason to open the communication. Much like an executive summary for longer memos, a checklist or an eye-grabbing phrase will bring readers in. Instead of labeling an email or titling a memo “Regulatory impacts of Dodd-Frank,” a subject line of “Compliance requirement that could cost millions” might be more effective at engaging the reader.
  • Answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” Why will other departments benefit from this? The best idea or initiative needs to have the support of the personnel it is affecting. Outline why the project is beneficial and include the finance function.

    For example, communication with a subject line of “Accrual Automation Initiative” might not even be opened by non-accounting personnel. Relabeling the message with an estimate of time savings would make it more interesting. “Process in development to save 10 hours per month per project site” might be likely to draw the reader. In addition to a relabeling, highlighted points indicating the tangible benefits should be communicated—fewer manual hours spent doing data entry, more accurate inventory levels, and a more streamlined reporting process would be examples of such items.
  • Play the role of integrator. Finance terminology and regulation can be difficult to understand, especially for professionals outside of finance. Explain and interpret what new regulations, codifications, or trends mean for the business.

    Operations or other nonfinancial personnel have access to different financial tools, software, and information, but they can be unprepared to use them effectively. For example, just-in-time inventory is clear to finance professionals, but “minimizing inventory levels to free up cash” might be clearer to others.
  • Provide a framework of proposed action points. Much like the way agenda points help keep meetings on track, takeaway points give readers something tangible.

    There must be an answer to the question, “What does the reader do now?” If there is a summary page, hotline, or information source, that should be provided along with a summary of the main points.
  • Play to the strengths of the finance function. Modeling, quantitative analysis, and planning are all integral parts of the finance function. Outline the value that can be brought to the table by partnering with finance.

A picture is a worth a thousand words, and the same could be said for numbers. Clear, concise, well-labeled examples of cost or time savings will draw the reader’s eye and reinforce the message. Example: The accrual initiative will save 10 hours per project, per month.

10 hours per month × 12 months = 120 hours
120 ÷ 24 = 5 days a year in time savings
Multiplied by 100 projects = 500 working days for value-adding initiatives

Finance professionals occupy a certain role in most organizations, one of gatekeeper, compliance enforcer, and quantitative analysis provider. There are many more ways that the finance function can help the firm develop new projects and continue to create value. The key is communicating the value, ideas, and strategies that the finance function can bring to the table.

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Sean Stein Smith, MBA, CPA, CMA, CGMA, is a senior accountant at United Water Inc. He assists in the preparation of financial statements and plays a role in process improvement initiatives.