4 Tips for Translating Tax Jargon Into Business Success
The art of communicating technical topics to your corporate colleagues takes practice and tact.
Amanda L. Gavin, CPA, MBA
Manager, Global Tax & Trade, Caterpillar Inc.
Have you ever been in a meeting where a technically savvy accounting or finance pro
throws around technical jargon as easily as promises on a campaign trail? That person is
likely respected in their field, but unfortunately, the intended audience has probably either
tuned out or been left out. Time and again I’ve seen enthusiastic business professionals —
both in accounting and finance and other organizational areas — who are eager to learn
and grow and dive into analysis and discussion become discouraged and frustrated because
they’re unable to follow the conversation.
It’s incredibly important for us accounting and finance professionals to speak in
understandable business terms, especially in a post-Tax Cuts and Jobs Act climate where tax
is a hot topic in all aspects of the corporate world. So, here are some tips for communicating
technical topics I have learned along the way (and sometimes the hard way).
Tip #1 – Cash Is King
When it comes to talking shop, cash is king! During my days in public accounting, we
would often start a conversation with our clients in terms of cash impact. Ultimately, that
is why they agreed to the meeting and why they are in business. So, if you are talking about
the impact of the new revenue recognition standards or depreciation methods, for instance,
be sure to understand how each decision will impact cash flow and know ahead of time
how to illustrate it to your audience.
Tip #2 – Avoid Technical Jargon
We’ve all been in classrooms, conferences, and meetings where everyone’s eyes have
glazed over and nothing useful has been absorbed by anyone. Don’t let this happen to you.
It’s incredibly important to translate technical jargon, especially from the tax world, into
everyday language your peers will understand. Decision makers particularly need to be
able to follow the issues and proposed solutions you’re presenting.
A couple of years ago, I started working on compliance in the U.S. International Tax space
at Caterpillar. At that time, I found myself focusing on the words and code sections so
closely that I couldn’t participate in the discussion as effectively as I would have liked.
I often liken that experience to being dropped off in a foreign country where I can’t
speak the language.
When advising on the tax consequences of
certain business transactions, I find it most
effective to drop all references to code
sections and stick to terms everyone can
follow. For instance, if you’re trying to
explain the new provision for the limitation
on interest deduction, don’t start out by
saying, “The IRS and Treasury released
Notice 2018-28 announcing their intent to
issue proposed regulations under Section
163(j) as amended by the TCJA.” Instead,
simply inform your client that you are
waiting on proposed regulations which
might impact what they can deduct on
their tax return. Give them an example:
“For instance, every $10,000 of expense
over the limit could increase your liability
by more than $2,000.”
Tip #3 – Talk About Risks
When you talk about the potential impact
of a proposed change or strategy, be sure
to discuss the potential risks and costs.
State why the proposal makes sense for the
business. For instance, if you’re on the tax
side talking about how a cost segregation
study would improve cash flow by
accelerating depreciation deductions, the
business side is going to want to know how
that would impact the financial statements.
It is very impactful, and it boosts your
credibility, when you can articulate the
risks and costs and do so before needing
to be asked.
Tip #4 – Become a Trusted Advisor
Developing good relationships between tax,
finance, and other business segments is
critical for the enterprise’s success as well as
your own. Being cordial and collaborative
is only a fraction of the equation. Key to
becoming a trusted advisor is being open,
honest, and willing to have the difficult
I have known several great tax advisors who
openly acknowledge when management or
other stakeholders will not like the tax
answer but then they simultaneously
promise to work together to find the best
outcome for the enterprise. This approach
automatically pulls everyone into the
conversation and encourages engagement
in seeking solutions — it inspires trust
To successfully translate tax jargon into
business success, you need to know your
audience, be able to talk about the enterprise
impact, and learn to simplify your verbiage
so you can spend more time on the analysis
and less time translating the issue.