Tips for a Better Response: Case Writing

Guest writer Nikki Reardon Marchiel, CPA, CA is a long time CPAWSB session leader, facilitator and mentor to other facilitators.

Have you ever looked at a website, a memo, or article that was lines of unbroken text and thought ‘ugh,’ then stopped reading? No one wants to read large chunks of text; we prefer short, bite-sized pieces of info that get to the heart of the matter. The users in your submissions feel the same! Below are some ideas on how to improve your case submissions (and as a bonus, most apply to your regular work, too!).

These are the key tenants for successful qualitative discussions:

Balanced discussion

  • You need to have a balanced discussion to get to C (competent). This means points for both pros and cons, or risks and opportunities. If you only discuss one side (i.e. Only the risks with a certain decision), then you are what we call a ‘biased jumper.’ Virtually all cases will have both pros and cons for qualitative discussions, so don’t ignore the case facts! It is hard to be objective and see all angles of an issue; showing objectivity is a key skill for CPAs to develop.
  • If you use bullets (see below), then it becomes easy to see that you have roughly an even number of pros and cons. Don’t stress if they are not perfectly even; we are looking for a rough balance here.
  • I feel like I am a salesperson for sub-headings. I don’t get a commission for recommending them, but they are a small, yet powerful tool to help organize your response. First, it looks professional. Second, it demonstrates to your user that you know what a pro versus a con is.

QQC

  • Almost every time you prepare a quantitative assessment, the next thing to do is discuss the qualitative. QQC stands for Quantitative, Qualitative, Conclusion. CPAs cannot live and die by the numbers alone! This comes back to having a balanced discussion and being objective, as discussed above.

Bullets

  • If you are not using bullets, I encourage you to try them. It is easier for your user (and exam marker and a happy marker is a generous marker). When you have your CPA designation you won’t need to worry about exam marking, but you will need to write for real-life users. Each bullet should cover one idea, and used effectively, bullets should help keep your writing concise.
  • Bullets are also awesome for WIR (weakness, implication, recommendation) analysis. If you have a separate bullet for each of the W, I, R points, then you will remember to address each of the components.

Explain the WHY

  • Without a doubt, this is the hardest part of the qualitative for candidates. You can see the case fact, tell your user it is a con (for example), but not WHY it is a con. In case writing, we often say ‘so what?’. If the case fact is that there is a penalty for late deliveries of goods, you will not get to “competent” for restating this. So what if there is a penalty? To you, it is obvious why this is a problem, but not to your user. You need to state, for example, that the penalty is a con because it can impact the profitability of the proposal. 

Incorporating enough case facts

  • Remember that virtually everything in a case can be used in your response. Don’t ignore case facts! Ask ‘how can I use this info in my response?’ and then slot it into one of the requireds in your outline so you can incorporate it into your memo. Everything is there for a reason!

Tailoring your response for your user

  • Your user can google the tax implications, Handbook section, etc. for their problem. The value that CPAs bring to the table is interpreting the technical information and applying to their user’s specific situation. If I go to my lawyer for a real estate transaction, I don’t want them to tell me every technical detail related to buying a house. I want them to tell me the technical as it applies to my unique situation.
  • While you likely have a lot of knowledge about a particular topic, remember that your user may not be as excited about section 85 rollovers as you are! They don’t want a technical dump in detailed ‘accountancy lingo,’ so make it easy for them to understand, and incorporate as many case facts as you can! That way, your user knows the memo was written for them and not another user.

Recommendations

  • Your recommendation should be crystal clear, not wishy-washy. A good recommendation is, “I recommend you proceed with the investment because the quantitative results are positive, and the pros outweigh the cons. Specifically……”(and then you can justify a few pros that support the qualitative). A wishy-washy recommendation is, “You could go ahead with the investment, but you need to think about X first.” Make a clear recommendation!
  • Consistency: your recommendation needs to be consistent with the quant. If you calculate a negative NPV, for example, then your recommendation should acknowledge this. It looks weird if you have a poor quantitative result yet recommend proceeding. The only time we should do this is if the qualitative factors outweigh the poor quant results.
  • Highlight recommendations! It is easy to miss one if it is not highlighted. I like to use a Recommendation heading and discuss each recommendation underneath, using sub-headings if needed. You can copy and paste the sub-heading for all your requireds to save a bit of time.