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April 13, 2021

Accounting Improv Course Bolsters Students’ Communication Skills

The New Language of Business
Accounting Improv Course Bolsters Students’ Communication Skills
A new course at the College of Business combines improvisational practices with accounting knowledge to enhance students' communication skills. Dr. Amanda Gonzales, associate professor of practice in accountancy, co-created the course and teaches the tools and techniques to improve the written forms of communication and critical thinking.

Research and Communication in Accounting (ACCT 455), a new course, merges the worlds of business and theater with the goal of preparing future accountants to adapt to an ever-changing industry. Ultimately, it prepares students to communicate effectively in the workplace during even the most unpredictable situations.

“Responding in real time during unexpected or unstructured situations is very important for our students in their careers because much of their work will require evolving, fast-moving conversations with clients and colleagues,” said Dr. Amanda Gonzales, associate professor of practice in accountancy, who partnered with Julie Uribe, lecturer at the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film, to develop and teach the new course.

The idea for the interdisciplinary course originated during a discussion with industry professionals about better communication and greater ability to adapt and handle the modern-day business atmosphere. More than 20 industry leaders serve on two advisory boards for the School of Accountancy.

“Firms like Deloitte need their professionals to be able to communicate effectively during any kind of situation that may arise. It will provide more diverse and even stronger accounting graduates who can lead the future in our industry,” said Lori Druse, audit managing director at Deloitte in Omaha, Nebraska.

Offered for the first time in the fall of 2020, the new course uses improvisational principles and techniques to enhance the communication skills of accounting students. Students start with one professor and then switch partway through the semester, culminating in a final presentation to accounting professionals.

“We each planned our own curriculum with shared course objectives in mind. In the end, our mutual goal is to help the students get hired, promoted and flourish in a diverse and fast-paced world,” said Uribe.

Improvising for Success

Julie Uribe, lecturer at the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film.
Julie Uribe, lecturer at the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film, took students through unique improvisational exercises, often using full-body movement or short scenes created on the spot.

Using her background at the U.S. Financial Accounting Standards Board and International Accounting Standards Board, Gonzales’ five-week session focuses on growing students’ ability to research and communicate effectively through written form.

“I train students to leverage their prior accounting and business knowledge and brainstorming techniques to identify important accounting questions and analyze and justify solutions,” she explained. “I then help students tailor their messages to the audience, fostering goodwill while communicating clearly, concisely and professionally.”

While Gonzales concentrates on the written form, Uribe uses her improv background to heighten the students’ verbal form of communication. From her improv training at the Groundlings School in Los Angeles with notable alumni like Will Ferrell and Melissa McCarthy and more than 25 years of experience in the television industry, she revels in the challenge of breaking the mold for accounting students through improvisational methods.

“Accountants are stereotyped with having no charisma or communication skills. While I wholeheartedly disagree on that one, communication or ‘soft skills,’ are sorely overlooked in most fields today,” said Uribe, whose work in the television industry earned her an Emmy. “Using applied improv techniques such as ‘Yes, and’ and avoiding denials, I focus on verbal and nonverbal communication, listening to learn and the confidence to adapt and engage in the moment.”

Students are encouraged to get out of their comfort zones when they practice
different improv techniques in class.
Students are encouraged to get out of their comfort zones when they practice different improv techniques in class.

Students in Uribe’s sessions are doing things similar to what a theater student may do, such as different improv techniques involving freeform movements or short scenes created on the spot. Uribe quells the fears and uncertainty students may have through a principle of improv, “support your partner,” which creates a welcoming environment to grow confidence and foster trust and teamwork.

“At the beginning of each of my sessions, the students are nervous, quiet and generally confused why an accounting major has to take an ‘improv’ class. They don’t know what to expect and are fearful of looking silly in front of their classmates,” she said. “For virtually all of the students so far, those hesitations and fears disappear pretty quickly.”

Tyler Anderson, ’20, attested to the enjoyment he got from the course and its unique learning environment.

“My experience in this class was truly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my academic career up to this point. From an academic sense, there is nothing better than learning and having fun at the same time,” said Anderson, a graduate student now pursuing his MPA at Nebraska.

Creating Impact in the Workplace

Gonzales believes the skills learned in the course help set Nebraska’s School of Accountancy students apart from peers, providing benefits in both the immediate and long term.

Students work on improv in the new Research and Communication in Accounting course.
Students work on improv in the new Research and Communication in Accounting course.

“As our students transition into the workforce, they understand the importance of communication in their first jobs and how it will lead to career advancement. They are equipped to communicate effectively in a variety of contexts. Employers value these skills and view them extremely favorably,” said Gonzales.

Beyond the professional development, Uribe witnessed personal growth from students, something she considers will help the next generation of business leaders.

“I see these students emotionally connecting and supporting each other, which inspires empathy. Without that, I don’t think it’s possible to be a successful and inclusive leader,” she said.

Gonzales shared how the students finish the course more self-assured and ready to lead out in the real world.

“It’s exciting to teach a class that you know will benefit students no matter where their future leads. The skills we practice aren’t specific to a single type of job or even to the accounting field. These skills will set students up for success. I love giving students confidence to go out and thrive in ways they didn’t think were possible,” she said.

The course, which is now required for senior-level accounting majors prior to graduation, also provides new meaning to Warren Buffett’s (’51) famous phrase, “Accounting is the language of business.”

“I thought I would dread this class every day until it was over, but now I want to take another improv class at some point. I feel it has helped me significantly, and am now more confident and ready to tackle the world,” said Jennifer Adams, ’20, a financial services professional at TD Ameritrade in Omaha.