10 tips for more engaging online tax and accounting CPE

When COVID-19 took over the world in March, we had to adjust the way business is conducted. Conferences were canceled and professionals worked from home.

While the manner of communications changed, the need to stay informed and current remained the same. Professionals needed to retain their licenses and certifications, while continuing to interact with clients. Online delivery will be with us for some time. So, we all turned to Zoom or another online live delivery platform to fill the gap.

Despite the need to transition to online, we quickly discovered that an engaging presentation in the online world is quite different than in live events. A 2017 article from Inside Higher Ed noted that in-person teaching allows for a bit of improvisation. In a live event, you can read your audience and adjust your speed and style. In a virtual event, you cannot see your audience and thus, cannot adjust on the fly. Teaching online suddenly required an almost artistic eye toward designing course materials and possessing a captivating personality. Accountants are not always known for their artistic style or charm. Online continuing professional education presenters are now faced with a problem that teachers were encountering in the early days of the pandemic. We have had to adjust to a two-dimensional CPE presentation environment.

The challenges of a two-dimensional platform are instantly apparent. The audience sees us, but in most cases, we do not see them. We receive no feedback, and sometimes have less time to prepare because the time to adjust has been so rapid. Simply getting something available online is the goal. Substitution for conferences had to be addressed in a rapid manner, and quality was not as important as prompt delivery of product. However, now that we have had a full season of online CPE delivery, it’s time to address what makes a quality online experience for attendees of online CPE presentations.

Who am I to tell you what makes a good CPE course? During the pandemic, I have designed and taught numerous tax and accounting courses which have received favorability ratings between 90 to 100 percent. It is from that perspective that I offer the top 10 tips I have learned to create engaging presentations if you are asked to present a tax or accounting seminar online:

It’s about them, not you
Online instruction is two dimensional. You cannot read the students’ body language as you do when you conduct a live presentation. In a classroom, you can observe when you are presenting too much information: Is it too fast or too boring? Are you losing your audience? An article in the Journal of Physiology suggests a student’s attention span is about 10-15 minutes without breaks. If you start speaking at minute one and don’t stop for two hours, you have just spoken to yourself for 110 minutes. If you break up your presentation into small chunks, you have a better chance that your participants are engaged.
Be a water hose, not a fire hose
Limit the amount of content you present. Too much information is not always better. Assume your audience can only absorb a small fraction of what you think they can process. Participants may give up trying to process the information if you give detailed minutiae on a tax or accounting topic. It is well known in education circles that students cannot remember as much information in a lecture format when they are only hearing. The Peak Performance Group created an image of a learning pyramid showing a blue part at the top for passive methods of learning, and a red portion at the bottom where active learning occurs. Clearly, lecture is the least effective method to engage learners.

According to the Journal of Life Science Education, research indicates there can only be so much information presented in a lecture. The authors advise lecturers to paint a big picture but leave details for smaller sessions, perhaps follow-ups: “Tell the students not only what is most important about a particular topic but explain to them why it is important.” Doing this will give participants access to the point of information several times to help them learn the content. Manage the amount and method of your content. You do not need to convey everything you know in two hours.
Show them, do not tell them
I do not lecture in my college classrooms; I demonstrate. All my accounting and tax instruction is conducted through the demonstration of problems and scenarios. Students see the relevance from the beginning of the instruction. The problems and material have a contextual application. You can see that practicing by doing is 70 percent more effective than lecturing. It does take a significant amount of work on my part to master the problems I demonstrate. You must work through them several times so you do not get confused during your presentation. The only thing worse than doing a problem is doing it incorrectly for your students. I also think about and research potential questions that may arise during the demonstration to explain why that method is effective and valid. But learners walk away with more understanding of the issues at hand than a 120-minute lecture could ever provide.
Break up the problems into tiny pieces
If you are going to teach through problem demonstration, make sure the participants are working alongside you. If you have the participants work on the problem, give them feedback every step of the process. Do not assign a problem that takes 20 minutes in total to complete and only offer guidance at the end of the 20 minutes. Give guidance and correct answers every time a sub answer is needed. Often participants will give up or come up with the wrong answer if you only explain at the end of the problem. Intervene before failure can occur.
Know your audience
If you are doing polling to verify CPE and attendance, launch with a couple of skill-level questions to determine the proficiency of your audience on your topic. This gives great insight on how fast to progress. Questions such as “how long have you been an EA, do you own your own practice, do you work in a firm, and what are your areas of expertise” can inform you as to what you should cover in your presentation and how fast you should cover it. It may even be wise to have two versions of your presentations ready based on the skill level of your audience. You will come out a hero if your audience walks away happy with the new knowledge you helped them master.
Do not be arrogant
Sure, everyone knows you are important. You have become proficient enough in your field to be the instructor at a conference. Big deal. The participants are paying for the event. They are your customers. If you come off as an arrogant jerk, attendees and the conference organizers suffer. You may think I am being a little ridiculous here but trust me. It is well known in education that some people take a little power and run with it. Remember that fifth grade teacher who bossed kids around like a drill sergeant? Be honored and grateful to be a presenter. Thank the participants for allowing you to work with them. It will serve you well.
Be sensitive to the time restraints
Do not go over the allotted time. Full stop. If you want to be available for question after the required time, that is fantastic. Once your time required to present has passed, tell the participants they are free to log off if they do not have questions. A few may want to take advantage of your never-ending fountain of knowledge, but more will probably not. They want the CPE and that is it.
Stage your presentation room
This may seem silly to some of you, but for me to remember I have students on the other side of the screen, I set up a prop of Beanie Babies. They are my students. Seriously. Put up some type of an audience reminder that there are people on the other side of the camera. It’s easy to forget and to start lecturing without consideration for the listeners. If there is a visual reminder that there are actual human beings listening to you, it helps you to remain human as well.
Take questions during the presentation
Waiting until the end to answer questions is less than effective. Schedule question breaks every 10 to 15 minutes. Guess what, this is in the exact time frame your audience is losing interest! Breaking up the monotony of your presentation with a short question session will bring back the listeners from their daydreams. Build a “time to take questions” slide into the presentation. Polling has helped a bit with this, but allow three to five minutes for questions during your presentation. The audience can get up and stretch, and you can re-engage the group. Plus, the immediacy of the question related to the recently covered material and your answer can reiterate the content you just presented for longer lasting retention.
Remember KISSes for your audience
Finally, this is the advice of the age old Keep It Simple Stupid. Keep your slides simple, keep your words simple, keep your content to a manageable mental processing level, and keep in mind your audience absolutely will not have your skill level. If they did, they might be the ones presenting. What you think is easy to understand, your audience may find extremely difficult. Straightforward, interactive and communicative human presentation skills are the most effective in an online learning environment. Keeping it simple will make everyone feel they are part of a team, not left out of the game.

Online CPE will be here for a while. Even when scientists create vaccinations or therapeutics to allow us to gather again, it will take time for people to trust them. We will want to know it is safe to travel distances and safer to be together shoulder to shoulder in conference halls. Additionally, almost everyone is suffering from some level of financial restrictions. Online CPE is cheaper than attending conferences. Online learning can be very effective if done correctly. Take these small tips and it should help you structure your next presentation to meet your audience’s needs.