How storytelling methods can help you excel at tax advice


BDO L&D senior manager, Colleen Mortimer, CTA, discusses how storytelling methods can help you piece together a great piece of tax advice – every time.

Tax expert Colleen Mortimer is Senior Manager - Learning & Development at BDO and a lecturer for The Tax Institute. She is also a lecturer at Curtin University in the Masters of Tax programme.

She says she has been involved in teaching every structured education program the Institute has to offer.

“I run the face-to-face education program for CTA1 Foundations, which covers taxation law basics,” she says.

“I also teach a few modules in CTA2A Advanced and CTA2B Advanced, and on occasion, I'll do some work for the CTA3 Advisory subject. I'm also the subject convener for CTA2B Advanced.
These are the subjects you need to complete to become a Chartered Tax Adviser.”

Colleen says she first got into tax because it was the job she worked in when she finished university.

When asked what her greatest achievement has been, it is inspiring students to study tax, and go into the tax profession.

“Over the years, I've had many letters, and nowadays emails, from people who say, ‘I didn't know what I wanted to do. Then after I did your classes, I realised that tax was something I wanted to specialise in’,” she says.

“That includes one of the Melbourne partners at BDO, who, when he saw my name on an email list, replied and said,

‘Oh, I thought I should tell you that because of you I'm here now.’

“That's what I really look back as having achieved, is giving people something to aim towards and something to feel passionate about themselves,” she explains.

When asked what she loves specifically about tax, Colleen says she’s a jack of all trades in that she has reasonable knowledge about most things and hasn’t really specialised in a particular area.

“I think I was destined for the world of tax,” she admits.

“I find the application of the law really interesting.”

Storytelling and tax advisory

The word storytelling is probably not the word you would normally associate with the world of tax. But it’s more relevant than you might think.
When working with a client, you are their tax expert. From you, they seek advice and counsel. They come to you with their context, their circumstances, and the issues they are concerned about. As a consultant, your job is to take apart these facts and get the story straight before diving into the advice.

“For whatever reason, I've been able to convey those stories,” says Colleen.

“I think I'm able to talk about those scenarios and point out the interesting facts in it.

“Then people begin to realise that tax actually isn't just about figures. It’s about businesses, people and the decisions they make,” she explains.

However, Colleen is quick not to dismiss the important compliance work at the start.

“Initially, you start off doing what we call the compliance work,” she says.

 “Then, as you understand those concepts that allow you to fill out tax returns and other straight compliance work, you move to the advisory work, which is much more interesting.

“That's where you really get to use your knowledge and your problem-solving skills.”

A client may come in and lay out what they want to do. The client might say, “I want to go overseas. How should set it up? What would be the best way?”

A tax consultant will need to learn the tax rules of that country. You have to learn what your client actually wants to achieve. Is the client risk-averse? You have to put that story together.

Here’s where the story unfolds – your client’s story. It’s what you need to get right before providing the best advice.

Structured programs in a nutshell

As a lecturer who has taught across the Institute’s core subjects, here is Colleen’s rundown of each.

"In CTA1 Foundations, candidates learn about topics such as basic income and deductions, partnerships, trusts and companies. She describes it as a “really nice basic level of information.”

Then, CTA2A Advanced and CTA2B Advanced build on all of this.

“We then move away from just the basics, and we start looking at more complex matters,” she explains.

“For example, in capital gains tax, initially you might say: these are some rules about capital proceeds, and these are some rules about the cost base.

“Then you'll go into the next one, and you look at some of those issues.

“Now you're looking at more difficult parts of it; so not just the very superficial.

“And that's how it progresses all the way through,” she adds.

CTA3 Advisory is all about the art of client engagement. It involves exploring complex problems within detailed case studies.

This is where candidates are confident in the story and can come in at a higher level to provide advice.

“What I've found with CTA3 Advisory, it really teaches you to get your thoughts in order, and be logical in how you attack a problem,” she says.

“New practitioners, sometimes I find that they almost jump straight to the answer.

“The answer may well be right, but how did you get there?”

With CTA3 Advisory, it’s important to address case studies in a very logical way in which the journey is just as important as the advice. Here's the legislation. This is what it says. These are exemptions or exclusions. These are potential problems. This is how I think we should deal with it. You'll work your way to the conclusion.

“Remember that the Tax Office could well be asking why?” advises Colleen.

“How will you support how you got to that point?”

She says candidates can't just say, it’s what they thought was correct.

“You need to be able to show that you came to this decision because of these reasons,” she points out.
 
Trends in the classroom

Although Colleen says that case studies and practical scenarios are key to developing advisory skills, she finds that it isn’t necessarily what students appear to want.

“They still want a very regimented education,” she admits.

“You tell me this, I learn it, and I'll tell it to you in an exam.

“However, during classes, I explain to students that they have all the knowledge. So here's a little problem - solve it.

“They're reluctant to do that,” she admits.

Collen says educators are able to see where things are going, but in her experience, candidates haven't yet caught up just yet.

That’s where her professional experience comes in. She references the realities of day-to-day needs of clients; i.e. developing relationships and understanding the client story. And that works every time.

What makes a success story?

When asked what makes a successful tax adviser, Colleen says, “My advice has probably changed over the years, but practitioners need more than just the knowledge; they need soft skills which are just as important.

“The ability to work with other people, the ability to solve problems, the ability to think critically.

“That's really what will make you a successful practitioner,” she advises.

Practitioners need to be able to work with clients to understand the story and combine this with the technical skills needed to solve the issue at hand, and ultimately, provide the best advice.

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