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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Soft skills: Polish your communication skills

In my career as a communication coach, I have seen many actuaries in action. They have all demonstrated strong intellectual, mathematical and problem-solving skills. However, rarely did they stand out as strong communicators. At a time when there is pressure to be relevant to clients, employers and employees, it is essential to be effective in this area. Being smart or clever is the minimum expectation. Your ability to differentiate yourself, or your firm, win business and manage relationships, will rest on your ability to communicate well. What are the most important tips for you to consider right now?

Become a subject matter expert on your listeners
The more insight you have on your listeners, the greater your chances of success. What can you learn about them beforehand and how well do you listen at the meeting? Actuaries tend to be analytical by nature, more comfortable with and interested in the technical detail, rather than how the detail will be understood and received by their listeners. Of course content is important. However, consider how your preparation would change if you knew:
>> The level of understanding your audience has about your subject
>> The barriers they have to accepting what you have to say
>> Who supports your idea, who is against it, and why
>> The key decision-maker’s priorities and concerns related to your subject
>> What they like about the subject or anything you should avoid talking about.

Time spent understanding the audience before preparing the content will cut preparation time and improve effectiveness.

Approach your meetings and presentations as conversations, rather than monologues
This takes more preparation than you might think. Your intention is to involve the listener in the discussion or presentation. In a conversation, there is more likely to be a balance between talking and listening. As subject matter experts, there is often a tendency to bombard the listener with too much technical information and detail, talk too much or dive right into the content. This is affectionately known as the ‘data-dump’.

The most frequent feedback from audiences is that presentations came alive only during the question and answer session. At that point, speakers became more dynamic and addressed the audience’s concerns. Many analytic presenters prefer questions because this makes them think and shows where they can add value. However, their presentation blocks audience participation with too much technical detail or content. So if you structure your meeting to prompt interaction, then you can move more readily to a dialogue.

Become more flexible in your communication ‘style’
We are all comfortable with our own signature communication ‘style’. By that, I mean we all have a certain preference for the way we do things, most of the time. Don’t be that person who stops getting invited to meetings, or plays a small part in important presentations because you can’t connect with the audience. Think of those behaviours that are ‘typical’ of you. Whatever your style, whether it is quiet, outspoken, cheerfully sociable or laid back, you’ll most certainly get on better with someone whose style matches or fits your own. What happens when a client, boss or coworker whom you need to convince, persuade or influence has a different style from yours? Instead of jarring with someone whose style is very different, you can work with them, know what to expect from them and respond in ways they will understand and connect with.

Make rehearsal a habit
Boring — I know we have heard this over and over again — however, I cannot reinforce this enough. The best communicators in the world are the most diligent at rehearsing. I promise that the time you spend here is worth it. Analytical people in general find rehearsals boring. Perhaps in their mind they have solved the problem in their presentation so, therefore, the job is done. Convincing the audience is not usually considered part of the solution.

For important meetings:
>> Rehearse at least three times
>> Plan your rehearsal ahead of the meeting
>> Rehearse conversations too.

Ask a friend or colleague to watch you, or role play with you — mirrors alone are weird and they give bad feedback. If possible, create an environment that is similar enough to the place you will be presenting or meeting. Be sure to rehearse questions and answers and remember that your audience can usually tell when you haven’t rehearsed. Time and energy spent on improving your communication is an investment that will return benefits to your professional and personal life. So get started.

Juliet Erickson is an international communication coach and author of The Art of Persuasion and Nine Ways to Walk Around A Boulder. She is also married to an actuary.