Accountants get a really bad rap. The world often views our profession as the one of “numbers people” or considers accounting boring. Do you know how I know? Look at the memes or movie characters about accountants – stiff suits, pocket protectors, the whole nine yards. I have met a lot of accountants in my day, and I think this stereotype could not be farther from the truth. Accountants are dynamic, personable, and full of good information. So how did we get to the spot where people think we are boring?!?
In my opinion, there are a few factors that led us here. First and foremost, if you do not do it every day, accounting is complicated. There are some great examples of this – Have you noticed that debits and credits in accounting go the opposite way your bank statement shows? What about picking between fair values, market values, or net book values? Do you ever think about tax bases and tax basis accounting? Want another spot where the technical gets you in trouble? Have you ever told someone you are an auditor? It is pretty likely to end the conversation you were having. And that is before you start talking about confirming balances and vouching payables or any other basic stuff an auditor would do. When you are an auditor, you have to use a completely different language to describe your day-to-day work. To folks that do not do this every day, accounting can be gibberish that does not make any sense. “You like this stuff?” they say. “You have got to be a nerd.”
The technical nature of our profession is not doing us any solids, either. You cannot talk about a tax return effectively without using some form number or unusual-sounding reference. The most basic tax form is a 1040. No one uses that language for anything else. Are you doing something unusual on your taxes? You will need some wildly numbered form that most of the world has never heard of. Need to file in more than one state? It becomes even more complicated because each taxing jurisdiction uses a different numbering system, creating quite a mess. And it is not just taxes where there are technical challenges. New GAAP accounting guidance comes in ASCs with more numbers attached. GAAP and ASCs? They are just acronyms that mean something else, too. The technical complications are baked right in! Couple the numbering and other references with the fact that, so often, the answer to how to handle a situation truly is “it depends,” where specific rules apply in one situation but not in a very similar but slightly different one. Explaining why what we are doing works can be one of the hardest challenges.
Overall, this means that we have a branding problem. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this branding has been going on for hundreds of years, so many folks already stereotypically think of us. However, the good news is that showing people that what we do is not boring should be easy. It is all in the messaging! So what do we need to do?
First, we need to position ourselves as what we are – translators. We take this complicated accounting language and turn it into digestible and actionable information in our roles. That is precisely what a translator does, and no one thinks translators are boring. They sit in and play a significant role in key decisions. We are no different. The information that we provide business owners has a profound impact on their decision-making. From helping someone determine whether they can hire new staff, determining the best tax planning strategy to manage future payments, to how much they should accept in a buyout. It is our interpretation of the information that drives those decisions. There is not much that is more exciting, and it is the opposite of the stereotype.
Second, we have to practice using language people understand when talking to students or others in the community. ErC, PPP, FMV – sure, they are critical to our advice toolbag, but we have to start with concepts and names that people understand. That means making it easier to know what we do, which begins with simplifying how we talk about it. Instead of code sections and guidance references, we need to start with something easier to digest. I have seen this called using “plain English.” Doing that would be so helpful for everything that we do.
Third, we need to push back on the narrative. No one will ever know how wrong those stereotypes are unless we tell them they are wrong and highlight how awesome, unique, and interesting we are. That means sharing the neat things your colleagues do, spotlighting fun and exciting projects that you are working with, or even just reminding people how dynamic YOU are.
The best news about all of these points is this – Everything I have outlined above, all the steps, are NOT hard. They require better and more effective communication, combined with a little bit of practice. So this is my recommendation. Tell them you are a translator and see where it goes in your upcoming conversations about what you do. Make what you do easy to understand by talking about it simply and in words we all know. Remind people that stereotype the accounting profession that they are wrong. And most importantly, keep being you.