How Storytelling Can Push Accountants to the Top

By Robert Half April 17, 2017 at 8:11am

As soon as tax season is over, Tracey Segarra will present a workshop on business storytelling to the accounting staff at New York’s Margolin, Winer & Evens. She’ll share storytelling tips and talk about how essential these skills are to the firm.

Wait, what? Why do tough-skinned, detail-oriented, analytical CPAs need good storytelling techniques in their skill sets?

Great storytelling has been around forever, but the art of storytelling has emerged more recently as a powerful tool in many areas of the workplace. It bolsters teamwork, sparks business development, builds brands, enhances loyalty to products and services, and attracts new clients. It can also help you recruit and retain top talent, stand out in an interview and land your next job.

“Differentiating yourself is difficult,” Segarra says. “We all do audits, we all do compilations, we all do tax returns. What we do is not so different, but how we do it is.”

Already, her firm has set itself apart with its Instagram video during the Mannequin Challenge. And the staff knows about its marketing director’s open-mic forays. Segarra has won three of The Moth StorySLAM competitions and The Moth GrandSlam in New York City. Soon they’ll hear the nitty-gritty of learning how to draw out their own life stories and tell them, all as part of the job.

Here are some savory storytelling tips — applicable to job seekers, finance teams and hiring managers — to help you in the workplace.

1. Include a human element

“For stories to be powerful, there has to be at least a little bit of vulnerability,” Segarra suggests. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. It doesn’t have to be your deepest, darkest secrets. But you have to show that you’re willing to open up about yourself.”

An exercise she gives people in her workshop is to take an object they have on them, such as a key or a picture from their wallet, and tell the story of that object in three minutes. That’s a start to getting them comfortable with telling a story about something personal and developing a rapport with the listener.

As a job seeker, of course, you can put your all your credentials and employment history in your resume and cover letter, but you also need a personal branding statement.

2. Be authentic

“In business, people are always telling you to have an elevator speech,” Segarra says. “Well, an elevator speech is boring. If you can learn to tell people a true story that makes a connection, that’s much more powerful.”

One of the stories Segarra tells is how she was able to convince someone at her firm to let her nominate him as one of a magazine’s top “40 Under 40” leaders. He told her about how his father moved to the U.S. as an immigrant and worked as a cab driver to put him through college at New York University.

“That’s a story of the American Dream,” she says. “That student went on to become a CPA, who has developed a mentoring program and become a partner at our firm. Of course, he became one of those ‘40 Under 40,’ all because of story.”

3. Craft a compelling story

While some people memorize their narratives, thinking they can reel ’em in with facts and perfectly delivered public addresses, the most memorable content is conversational. It’s not too long — four or five minutes at most — and not too complicated, with multiple twists and turns.

Segarra suggests that the best way to work in a story is to bring listeners right into the action and introduce conflict, as she does with this one about using LinkedIn: “So a big client of ours couldn’t get in touch with an attorney and needed to, fast.”

Then you need to build to the story’s climax: Since we had just introduced LinkedIn to the firm, he asked me if I would see if we could track this lawyer down. So I plugged in the name, and I could see that one of the staff had a second-degree connection — somebody they knew, knew this person.”

Last comes the resolution and any other takeaways: “So I reached out, and he got right back to me and said, that’s my wife’s uncle. Within 10 minutes, the situation was resolved.”

Think of the storytelling techniques you can use when you Answer Common Interview Questions.

4. Inspire action

Data and facts are important, but wordsmithing builds influence, fires up imagination, and enables you to make friends and influence people. Think of how you can use storytelling techniques with presentations you make on the job.

Crowdfunding platforms that generate funding to start new ventures also use storytelling. Kickstarter offers a course on strategic storytelling to assist in crafting persuasive campaigns. After all, spewing content isn’t what’s going to attract backers, but a good story does.

Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson use storytelling to their advantage. He was stranded at an airport on a remote island when his flight was canceled. He chartered a plane and offered to take the other bumped passengers to their destinations for $39 apiece. Not long afterward, he founded the British airline Virgin Atlantic.

And then there are companies, like Airbnb, that find value in storytelling. It asks its customers to share their own stories on the company website, which helps people overcome the anxiety of staying in a stranger’s home while building trust in the brand.

As Segarra says, when we’re deciding what people to hire, how to engage with employees, what companies to work for or even how we’re going to interact with our bosses, it’s the human connections we make by engaging with each other that can make the difference.

Spin a true tale, practice it and tell it well, whether it’s around a campfire or across the desk. Experience the power of storytelling!

Tracey Segarra
Tracey Segarra

Tracey Segarra is director of marketing for accounting firm Margolin, Winer & Evens. You can find all of her storytelling work and contact information at www.traceysegarra.com.

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