Business Skills for Aspiring Actuaries: 3 Principles of Effective Communication
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This Episode’s Roadmap
“Do unto others as they would do unto themselves.”–The Platinum Rule
Getting across the message you wish to get across is both easy to do, and not easy to do. Especially when it comes to numbers, people (business colleagues and friends alike) seem to contract a curious case of the “MEGO”s – My Eyes Glaze Over. Thankfully, there are many tools and mindset considerations available to help prevent these symptoms from presenting.
Destination of Today’s Journey
After this episode, you’ll be able to:
- apply three key principles for achieving effective communication
3 Principles of Effective Communication for Aspiring Actuaries
Here’s the scenario:
You and your team have been working the past few months on a project that will be presented to the head of your product line at a meeting. During this time, you’ve conducted a number of analyses, build a few different models, and discovered some important insights that your team feels would be relevant to the product head. You’re leading a portion of the meeting agenda which will include potential recommendations and have practiced own your beforehand.
Here are a few guiding principles that can help increase the impact that you make with your communications.
Principle 1: It’s Your Responsibility To Make Sure Your Message Gets Across
It’s important to take ownership of making sure your recommendations are understood. If there’s any kind of break in communication, the onus is on you to fix it. Even if your intended audience is short on time, doesn’t read the material, or seems disengaged, avoid looking to shift the responsibility to your audience.
One of the best ways to do this is to be intentional. Think through how others will receive the information you have. For example, is there background knowledge that they need to know? Are you providing it? Don’t assume that your audience knows what you’re talking about. This is a common mistake many people make, especially if they pride themselves on being deeply knowledgeable on the subject. So a certain amount of background information is key to making sure your audience comes away with not just information, but understanding of that information.
Have a healthy balance of providing that background information though. Don’t overdo it in any certain way. Spread out the information between both facts and figures, visual aids and perhaps telling stories. Having a variety like this spices things up and makes the information more digestible for everyone in your audience.
Principle 2: Know Your Audience
This sounds simple enough, right? But having a robust understanding of your audience can go a long way in making sure your messaging and choices appeal to those you engage.
This is more than a surface level activity though. Truly understanding your audience involves having a grasp of things like:
- What motivates them?
- What are their primary issues and concerns? Right now? With your project?
- How do they like to receive information?
I recommend that you ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my audience have any background on what I have to say?
- How do I write or speak this material in a way that my audience will understand
- Is my audience a technical audience
- Are they going to know the same kinds of things I know?
Everyone you talk to is going to receive the information in different ways
Something else that will help you better prepare your presentation is whether you’re just going to be speaking to the person you’ve been working with one-on-one, or if there will be a larger audience (such as their boss) in attendance.
If you have other stakeholders listening to the presentation, what they need to know may be more than what information you provide to another coworker needs. They may need more background information than what you might give to your immediate team-mates. Keep in mind that everyone has different learning styles. This might mean they process information best verbally, or visually, or through action.
Also, understanding how other people react, other people’s personalities, how they think, is also helpful. Are they more “big-picture,” seeing a wide vantage point, then going down to the details, or are they more detail-oriented, wanting step by step processes?
Getting to know your audience does take time though. We realize that it’s easier said than done. This is often a reason why people don’t fully take advantage of this principle. Give it time and make sure you’re asking the right questions and are being observant. When you won’t have the opportunity to observe first, you can also take the time to answer these questions based on the context that you currently have. It can go a long way to make sure that the information, however you choose to convey it, is received by your audience.
Principle 3: Remember The Business Context
Connect the technical information with the business issues at hand. The technical stuff is a given. What you need to do is make sure to ask why they are asking for the particular information they want. Is it a business case? For example, they want to suggest or support the effectiveness of a new product? Is it a forecasting request? Or do they simply want updates on things so they can make a certain decision?
Also, what are their concerns? Are they looking at the public’s perception of the company? Are they looking to expand, somehow, perhaps to a specific demographic, for example? Make sure the communication is geared towards this request.
You can also think about how you communicate your recommendations to someone you’re advising. For example, say you have three approaches to a problem, with 1 being high, 2, medium, and 3 low. If you think the medium approach is the way to go, then you might go ahead and present options 1 and 3 first, as a contrast between extremes, then talk about the medium approach as your personal recommendation as an alternative to those extremes.
But in no way give up your business integrity. You are an actuary, and you are in a business. So while you keep in mind who your audience is, don’t sacrifice professionalism.
In addition, make sure you define words in advance or in context as needed. Don’t assume everyone’s going to know what you’re referring to. Give examples or connections to each person’s field. Provide analogies if you need to, contexts that your audience can grasp.
If you’re addressing a non-technical group, a good way to think about it is if you’re talking to someone who has no idea what you’re getting at. Think about what it is they need to know to make an informed decision. If they’re on a specific team doing a specific portion of a project, what would they need to know to get their portion of a project done?
This all comes back around to the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would do unto themselves.
You’ve reached your Destination
To recap: the one thing to remember is to apply the three principles of effective communication.
Principle 1) It is your responsibility to make sure your message gets across.
If there’s a communication breakdown, the onus is on you. Think things through of how you want to communicate information. Have a healthy balance of how you present information.
Principle 2) Know your audience.
Think about who you’re talking to. Are they a technical group? Or are they non-technical? Verbal or visual? Certain people need certain amounts or types of information. More information for a boss, and less so for a co-worker.
Principle 3) Remember the business context.
Make sure the technical connects with the business issues at hand. Give examples or analogies as needed. What do people need to know to get their job done?
And of course, in all this, be professional.
Let us know in the comments below – Which one of these principles do you think would be the best for you to focus on for the next month?
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- Transcript of Today’s Episode
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Why hello there, journeyers. Nemo Ashong here, and thank you so much for letting me be a part of your actuarial journey. You guys ready for episode number 44?
We’re gonna continue on with our conversation about communicating effectively today, and this is actually part two of that all. And you know, what I really wanna try and do here in today’s episode is give you three concrete things you should have in mind when you’re looking to communicate effectively.
Now, if you remember from the prior episode when we talked about the three myths, the way that I look at communicating effectively, is, was the message that you were trying to get across to your audience able to sink in? Were they able to understand it? So today’s episode is gonna focus on how you can best insure that will happen. What do you need to include or do before your communications, whether they’re verbal, whether they’re written text, whether they’re visual graphs or charts or other type of communication. What would you need to do or have in mind in order to make that as successful as possible?
Great! So, what I wanna do jump into things and share with you the destination of todays’ conversation. I’m actually gonna keep it really, really clear, because really there’s one thing that I wanna make sure you can leave today’s episode with:
Which is that I want you to be able to apply three key principles for achieving effective communication. That’s it. We’ll keep thing simple today. All right so, let’s go ahead—let me go ahead and share a quote with you, and this quote is actually know as the Platinum Rule, which is a variation on the Golden Rule. And the Platinum Rule goes like this:
“Do unto others as they would do unto themselves.”
Do unto others as they would do unto themselves. Had to repeat that and put some emphasis—em-pha-sis on a few diff things there. A lot of times, we do think: how do I want to have information presented to me? How do I feel comfortable? What is it about? What are my strengths? And I think that’s imp to keep that in mind, but remember when it comes to effective communication, to getting that message across to them, you have to reach people where they are. You have to help them understand what you are presenting, and how that ties into what their concerns, what their thoughts, what their life, what their boss—you know? All these different things that currently in their world—how what you’re telling them connects to what they need and what they care about. So keep the Platinum Rule in mind—it really kind of encompasses all of what we’ll go ahead and discuss today.
So I think we should just go ahead and do this. All right. so, the first key principle is that:
It’s your responsibility to make sure that your message gets across.
Now this is very simple thing—it’s a simple mind set and paradigm shift, but it’s something that’s so easy to do, that it’s also easy not to do it, all right? And what I mean by “it’s your responsibility,” is that going up and let’s just use a presentation now for this example, but going up and giving a presentation and talking for thirty to sixty minutes, and then having them leave there and them just not getting it? That’s not their fault. If they’d have gotten it, they wouldn’t have gone to the presentation to begin with.
All right, so that is, like, completely on you, or your team, or whoever else is there, to make sure that the message that needs to get across, gets across. Now that being said, it’s not necessarily saying that something specific needs—they need to go through and do a very specific outcome. No. It might just be that you want to make sure there’s a discussion with key people, key decision makers, all around a very specific topic. You know, but it’s also possible to have that presentation include in some comments that ends up derailing the conversation–this might be from you or someone else that’s there, and then ultimately not accomplishing what you came out there to do.
At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your message gets across. So whenever there’s this break in communication—take ownership of it. That’s gonna come back to you—take ownership of it. So how do you go about actually implementing this? Well, I like to think about–I like think through how someone would receive the message. If there’s background information that they need to know, how are you going to go about providing it? Will you do it all just through facts and cold hard facts and cold hard figures and numbers, will you tell stories, will there be a graphic component to it? Ultimately, you don’t need to overdo it, you just want to have a healthy balance and that you’re keeping that in your mind, as you’re building out your comm materials, building out your communication approach.
I’ll give an example from my personal life. A lot of times, when I’m involved in something, someone might go ahead and write an email explaining what we’re gonna do—say we’re going on a trip for a weekend, and that email is the longest email that’s possible. It has all the details there, but it’s all in maybe paragraph form, and you know, it’s just 16 different paragraphs just kinda coming out at you. For my standpoint that’s really, really difficult for me to actually digest. I like to be able to look at it, get a quick snapshot of what I need to know and know that I can come back and reference that email when I need to.
So, for me, that would communication with bullet points and effective headers, would come across more clearly and I would actually be able to receive that. So the person who sent that email that comes up to me later and says, “well, it was all in the email I sent,” the question I have is “whose fault is it that the message didn’t come across?” It is not—if you wanna be effective, you can leave it up to the person reading it and leave it up to them as to whether or not they’re gonna understand what you’re saying, but I think effective communication starts with you, and you thinking ahead as to how you can make that take place.
I’ll give another example of something that happened recently at work, where there was something I needed to get alignment on from some sr members of my team, and I put a lot of thought into how I wanted to communicate that, but I still got some feedback from my manager around some ways I could improve the communication for that group of people, in order to get the alignment in the time frame that I needed. So it’s definitely a process there, but I remember getting that response back from my manager and just welcoming it with open arms, because, ultimately, I did feel it was my responsibility to get what I needed—it wasn’t on them. So how can I become more effective at it?
And so keep that in mind, it is your responsibility to make sure your message gets across—principle number 1.
Principle number 2:
Know Your Audience
Not every communication is gonna be received the same way by diff people. Knowing your audience is one of the most important things that you can do going into any kind of communication. So, questions you wanna ask yourself: Who are they? Do they have any background on what you’re gonna be presenting? Is it a technical audience? Is it someone that has an interest in what you’re presenting, or are they there because of other reasons, and this presentation is just a part of the overall agenda? Is it just going out to the person that you’ve been working with, or is his or her boss attending, or are there other stakeholders that are gonna be involved?
And the reason that it’s important to know your audience is because they’re all gonna want different things. And they’re also gonna be coming at it from diff bg’s. I talked in a previous episode around having technical jargon. Well, knowing your audience gives you a chance to understand: what info do I need to provide for them to make this comm something they can act on? If you’re working hand-in-hand with someone, going back & forth and such, and you’re looking to make a decision, it’s likely you can just kinda jump right into the middle of the conversation with a little bit—very little bit of background, and ask for an opinion. However, if you’ve been working on perhaps a smaller team, and you’re now looking to socialize your idea with a larger group of stakeholders and decision makers, then that comm is gonna req addtl bg. Perhaps you’ll lay the landscape, of where the current item is, what approach you took to explore new options, and get your understanding of it, what various options and recommendations might exist—and then what your personal recommendation—or what your team’s recommendation is, given all that.
You know, that’s just one potential way of structuring the conversation, but note that because of your audience and their background, you are able to choose a different way to make sure they’re able to get the info they need to make a dec. I think another part about knowing your audience is also kind of understanding how that person would react, and how that person likes to be interacted with. So I’ve talked about different assessments to get to know yourself, and kind of like your speaking and communication style. I mentioned the “Fascination Advantage” as an example, and there are other types of personality assessments, business assessments as well. Some of you might be familiar with Myers-Briggs, MBTI. Or you might be familiar with DISC. Or something else that might be a little more proprietary to your organization.
Well, one of the big takeaways from that, is that each person is different. Everyone has their own style, and their own way of thinking about things. They also have their own way of making decisions. So there could be someone that wants the big picture, and once you’ve given them the big picture, you can then start drilling down. And other people want to know, “hey, give me all the steps sequentially, leading up to the big overall picture or concept we should put into play.” Some people are going to be really interested in being involved in the beginning of the project perhaps from the standpoint of brainstorming with you. Others are going to be more inclined to help you organize your thoughts, and others are going to be helpful in being able to help you execute what you’re looking to do.
So being able to know your audience, know what they like, how they like to be, and how they like to receive information, is key. There’s just one last thing I want to say when it comes to knowing your audience, and that’s staying along the lines of how they like to receive information. Some people are really good with details, give me as many details as you can, I wanna see the numbers, I wanna understand your methodology. Where did this number come from? What were the inputs that were involved in that. And some people really want to know that and that could be even at the exec level, all right? But most times, depending who your audience is, there’s a various level of details that they wanna know.
Some people are really good with text on a slide. Others prefer to see things visually. Some people just wanna talk to you, and they may not even open up your presentation at all. That goes again, to, it’s your responsibility to get your message across. Can you still provide your info without them doing the pre-work, or without them engaging in any kind of docs that you might have provided. So just having that in mind and trying to get a feel for who your audience is, is super-important. I think it also ties very, very well with the third key principle that we will talk about today.
And that third principle is:
Always Remember the Business Context
Not just the technical part. That’s the given. The technical aspect, the analysis that’s done–that is the part that they’re expecting to have done. What they need your help with is connecting it to the business issues. And I think that’s something to keep in mind. And I know a lot of people I talked to who became actuaries, or started their actuarial journey, started it because they were interested in math and business. And I think it’s imp to make sure that second portion of it stays into play. So—and even just going back to the actuarial talent supply and demand study that the Economist Intelligence Unit put together—time and time again, it was about how can actuaries better liaise across different business units, be able to be better managers, be able to be better leaders. You know, when you’re effectively communicating, and tying things back to the business context, it kind of gives you a better seat at the table to provide opinions and insights into matters of that nature.
So, how can you go about applying key principle number three? A question you might ask yourself is: Why did someone ask for this communication? Why am I writing this? What is this person looking for? Are they using it for a business case in order to perhaps suggests a new product, or support the effectiveness of that product? Or are they using it for forecasting purposes. Perhaps they’re looking to make decisions based on this. Or it could be just a status update, and you’re just looking to inform them of how things are going.
So understand what the business context is, in terms of what are they asking for? Why are you communicating that? Other things to kind of keep in mind: what are some of their concerns? What are some things that are top-of-mind for them? Are they concerned with public perception? Are they looking to expand? We brought up the example of several organizations, looking to–especially in like, life insurance, for example or property and casualty insurance, for example, looking to reach a demographic of people who were interested in purchasing their products online and getting more standardized and simple versions of the product.
Well that’s what they’re interested in. They’re making sure your communication talks to the fact that it appeals to a certain demographic, or well it might have some increases in costs, it ultimately is outweighed by the fact their objectives of getting standardization and simplification have been achieved.
You can also think about this also in the way that you present your different recommendations. If you come up with different recommendations, number one, two and three, with let’s say one being high, two being medium, and three being low. You know? It’s possible to make sure that if you want them—if you think the medium approach is the way to go, you know, you may not do it in the high-medium-low order. You might go by and do the high first because it’s an extreme version, then do the low next, because it’s the other extreme, and then present your final option as kind of a middle ground of the two, in order to find compromise between—kind of like the best of both worlds.
You know so, these are aspects to kind of think through because it’s really important to understand if you’re gonna try and do that, what are their main trigger point? what are they really interested in? One thing I wanna make sure is clear though, is that, at no point should you give up your business integrity. The actuarial profession is a profession—they’re looking for you, for your professional advice. So there’s no part of this, in terms of knowing like—knowing what the business context is, and who your audience is, and all that, where you should ever be sacrificing your business integrity or your professional integrity. But it’s still important to be aware as to where your audience is coming from and what the business context is for that.
I think another thing to kinda look into is what types of examples or analogies you might make, given your audience and given the business context, and what they’re looking to accomplish. What examples are you providing for them to kind of sink their teeth into?
Is there anything relevant in what is happening in their portion of the industry that might make sense? If you’re talking to someone in mktg, are there diff ex or diff connections that you might connect your results to, than for someone who might be on the strategy team?
Often times, depending on the audience, especially if they’re a non-technical audience,I look to try and think through: how might I explain to someone who has no idea what’s taking place? What do I need to give them? And ultimately, always coming at it from the mindset of, like–what do they need in order to make a decision? What do they need in order to feel comfortable about the progress? What do they need in order to move fwd with their portions of the project? And ultimately I think it all comes back down to that Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would do unto themselves.
So at this point, I think this is a good place to wrap up today’s conversation. Let’s go ahead and quickly recap the destination of this journey.
As I said, it’s just one very simple thing that I’d like for you all to get, which is to be able to apply the three principles for achieving communication.
1) It’s your responsibility to make sure your message gets across.
2) Know your audiences
3) Remember the business context
So the journey continues. I have a worksheet that is available for you to download that will help you think through each of these principles. You can go ahead and download it for free at actuarialjourney.com/44download. It’s all one word. And we’ll go ahead and send you a worksheet that you can use to process all this, and think through it before some of your communications.
I’m also excited for you to get your hands on the free business skills for actuaries course, so just go ahead, grab your phone and text “SKILLS” to 33444. That’s “SKILLS”–S-K-I-L-L-S to 33444. And you know, if you’re behind your computer, you can also get it by going to the website actuarialjourney.com/businessskills, if you’re behind your computer right now.
I’m really excited by the comments and feedback I’m getting around the focus of Actuarial Journey being helping you all establishing and demonstrating your business skills. This course is a way for me to help make some of the things that are more difficult to convey over audio available to you so that you can have access to videos and worksheets that accompany it, and to really kind of give you a plan of attack of how you’re gonna build your business skills and how you’re going to implement them.
You’ll also get more information around the community that we have to support this, and any other types of business skills building, webinars and panels and such as well. So just text “SKILLS” to 33444, and get in the loop. I’m really excited to hear from you, I’m really excited to share what we have going on there, quite frankly, I think it’s gonna make a big impact in your success throughout your actuarial journey.
You know kind of given that, we’ll talk again sometime soon. We’ve been talking about communicating effectively, and we’re gonna be changing the topic a little bit in our next conversation—to talk about building relationships. This is a part that comes up a lot when it comes to networking, getting buy-in for different projects, being able to work with—internally across multiple business units, hosting focus groups and getting info and feedback as a result of this. So building relationships is something that I feel very passionate about, so I’m very excited to dive into that as well. If you have any questions, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or find me on LinkedIn and let’s start up a conversation there.
All right so, I think with that, until the next time we speak, here’s to your continued success, and journey on!