Soft Skills 101: CPAs Take to the Mic

By Caitlin Q. Bailey, Assistant Editor

National surveys and CSCPA member gripes alike have told the same tale: many finance professionals have top-notch technical skills but lack the “soft skills” (communication) really necessary to take relationships with coworkers and clients to the next level.

CSCPA heard the call, and last year CSCPA Public Affairs Director Mark Zampino condensed the Business Communications course he teaches at the University of Hartford into two compact CPE classes: “Business Communication Do’s and Don’ts” and “The Secrets of Effective Public Speaking.”

The courses have spread like wildfire, from the University of Hartford classroom (where he’s served as an adjunct professor for the past six years) to the CPA Center to firms across Connecticut and reaching into New York.

Practice Makes Perfect … Even for Firm Leaders

In the 25 years Principal Matthias Strilbyckij has been with Konowitz, Kahn & Co., P.C. in North Haven, he’s given plenty of presentations in front of plenty of people.

There’s always room for improvement, though, so Strilbyckij opted in when the firm invited Zampino in for the four-week “Secrets of Effective Public Speaking” course.

“The course was very helpful – [Zampino] gave us a template, really, an outline for us to facilitate preparing a speech,” Strilbyckij said, “including things to be aware of such as problems that may occur. He makes sure you become more organized and better prepared.”

The four-week course consists of three different styles of speeches (instructional, informational, and persuasive) participants execute in front of their peers and Zampino – with just a small index card in hand and a practiced speech in mind.

“It’s good training,” Strilbyckij said, “knowing this is the hardest it would be tackling a speech, just memorized and with an index card, no PowerPoint or anything.”

Following each speech, each participant received constructive criticism from peers and an emailed critique from Zampino.

“With ‘The Secrets of Effective Public Speaking,’ my role is as much cheerleader as coach, because if I just point out what someone is doing wrong, it may well reinforce their self-doubt,” Zampino said. “Public speaking is an acquired taste, and in my classes participants do just that – they participate and learn by doing.”

“The key to what Mark is saying is always practice, always be prepared, and know your audience,” Strilbyckij added. “A canned speech isn’t going to work for everyone.”

Strilbyckij recently had the opportunity to put his skills to the test at a Business Network International (BNI) chapter meeting. Members give 10-minute presentations introducing themselves and sharing information about their firms and companies – and Strilbyckij happened to be scheduled for his chapter’s largest meeting ever, with more than 60 audience members. Luckily, he was armed with a new set of techniques, an outline, and Zampino’s words of wisdom to always arrive early (which allowed him to diffuse the PowerPoint problem that cropped up before he was put on the spot).

The result?

A resounding success. Strilbyckij received a number of comments and emails, and Konowitz, Kahn & Co., PC even received some website hits from a number of new potential clients.

“Everybody needs a refresher,” Strilbyckij said.

A Hit for New Staff, Too

For Laura Melchionna, a senior accountant at Fiondella, Milone & LaSaracina, LLP, college public speaking courses were a not-so-distant memory. She finished her MSA at the University of Connecticut in December 2006 before starting with the firm in January 2007.

“I had taken public speaking courses in the past as a business student at UConn, but none of them talked about how to adjust a microphone, the need to bring extra batteries in case your projector dies, or the fact that you don’t always need PowerPoint slides to give an effective presentation,” said Melchionna.

Melchionna, like Strilbyckij, learned the importance of having an outline – and practicing, particularly in front of others.

“I think students and non-students alike sometimes have a tendency to ‘wing it,’ and while that works out some of the time, it’s not a sure thing. And if you have a nervous habit (saying ‘ummm,’ rocking from side to side, rubbing your hands together), chances are you aren’t aware of it – and you don’t want those habits to become your audience’s focus. Better to have a friend or family member point that out in the privacy of your own home.”

While Melchionna has a trusted critic in her little sister – “If she tells me I’m boring, I know my audience will think so, too,” she laughed – she came to enjoy giving speeches to her peers at the firm during the class.

“I admit I got to the point where I looked forward to giving speeches to the class – the atmosphere of trust and the fact that it was a small group contributed to the feeling that this was a ‘safe zone,’” she added. “There certainly are nerves whenever someone mentions the term ‘public speaking,’ but this was the kind of venue in which you would want to hone your skills – the constructive criticism absolutely was there, but absent the judgment.”

Taking the Message to the Masses

Zampino’s classes have spread as far as New York City firm Hertz, Herson & Co. while also infiltrating the college level ­– the message rings true for more than just CPAs.

For non-traditional University of Hartford student Pete Polis, “Business and Professional Communications” sounded like the lesser of some required course evils – he admits thinking to himself “You know, this sounds not-as-boring as some of the courses I could take.”

Polis, staff engineer at Hamilton Sundstrand and the father of 14-year-old triplets, has been going to night school for the last 10 years to complete his B.S. degree in engineering technology.

Unlike many other courses he’s taken, this was “not a lecture,” Polis said. “It’s more of a coaching situation. Mark’s approach was ‘I’m going to help you individually and tell you what’s right and what you can do better.’”

“If you don’t think you need it, you probably do,” he advised. “I always thought I was pretty good at [public speaking], but there’s lots of things Mark pointed out to help me improve. Now I’ve learned how to do it better, and I’ve been able to dial in to my nervous habits.”

“Cool class, gifted communicator.”

Succinctly put.

CSCPA Public Affairs Director and University of Hartford Adjunct Professor Mark Zampino offers “Business Communication Do’s and Don’ts” and “Secrets of Effective Public Speaking” both at the Connecticut Society of CPAs and in-house. If you’re interested in having Zampino present at your firm, contact CPE Director Lisa Bugryn at 860-258-0232 or  

CSCPA’s Soft Skills Course Offerings

The following courses are currently offered as in-house programs by Mark Zampino and CSCPA.

The Secrets of Effective Public Speaking

Surveys have shown that many people fear public speaking more than death itself. Yet the “secrets” of effective public speaking are really quite simple and will be revealed to registrants during this four-session course (one two-hour session per week over four consecutive weeks).

This is an extremely interactive class, as each registrant will plan and deliver three presentations. Your staff will learn how to organize, rehearse, and deliver their thoughts and ideas before an audience, with a special emphasis placed on persuasive presentations. Participants will also receive personal written critiques from Zampino on each of their presentations as part of the course.

Because of the intensive hands-on nature of this class, registration is limited to only six participants per offering.

CPE Credit: 2 or 11*
* This program is available as a four-week interactive program and can also be presented as a one-time, two-hour lecture.

Business Communications Do’s and Don’ts

This two-hour session covers how to act – and how not to act – with coworkers, clients, and even family and friends. Here’s a sampling of the discussion topics:

  • How communication works
  • Nonverbal communication
  • How to be a good listener
  • Voicemail and cell phone etiquette
  • Email best practices
  • Client confidentiality
  • Sexual harassment
  • ... and much more.

CPE Credit: 2