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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Can actuaries be good speakers?

An ability to present well is crucial to actuaries
who are interested in improving their image,
whether addressing colleagues or clients, or
speaking at one of the profession’s conferences. However, some do still dread this prospect.
The root of the problem is that the professional strengths that make good actuaries in the first place the ability to absorb and present facts in an orderly and scrupulously accurate way can be a disadvantage when it comes to presentation skills. Conventional actuarial training is about mathematical thinking, financial problem solving, statistical analysis, and accumulating knowledge. Such skills are often in opposition to the ones needed to hold the listener’s attention.

Be a good communicator
Being too focused on content can deflect from performance. Actuaries need to stimulate interest in what they have got to say if they want to make an impact. Too many speakers who rely on their technical and detailed expert knowledge think that is all they need to be good communicators.
Recognising that this is a problem is the first step to overcoming it. One of the hardest things for all of us is to be constructively self-critical of the impact we make on other people. We may be nervous, self-conscious, aware of certain weaknesses, but we still will not necessarily know what we sound like or what impressions we are making. Even if we do, we may not know how to go about improving our performance.
It can be very frustrating, particularly for professionals, if you recognise that you are not getting your message across as well as you could, despite your knowledge of the subject. It can be worse than frustrating if you are actually losing business as a result.

The importance of trust
Clients want to feel comfortable with their professional advisers. Trust and personal rapport are as important as technical differences and sometimes even cost. This means that the firm’s reputation for actuarial expertise will not be enough. The ‘human face’ also counts.
Unfortunately, many people whose roles require them to interact with others and who need that special ability to persuade and influence are left to acquire communications skills through a process of trial and error and not always successfully. If things do not go well, confidence wanes and this in turn further affects performance. So what can be done to improve your speaking skills and inject style and flair into your presentations?

Some good news
The good news is that interesting speakers are not necessarily born, but can be made. You can learn to master the techniques that will turn you into a more accomplished and even dynamic speaker.
There are many mathematical aspects to actuarial work that are not naturally conducive to developing the human side of business relationships. Part of the job of the professional trainer is to soften tones, develop a more conversational style, and release that part of the actuarial mind that establishes connections, rather than putting distance between the speaker and the listener. A good trainer does not try to change the person but focuses on existing characteristics that can be used to improve communications. Often a small change in style, such as using inclusive words we, us, together and friendlier body language, such as smiling and positive eye contact, can lead to a big change in the speaker’s image.
All professionals and not only actuaries need to put themselves in their listeners’ shoes and think about what will be of most interest to them. They should ask themselves the question: ‘What will really make them sit up and say, “yes, I can see how that will be useful to me”?’

Some common mistakes
The trap many speakers so easily fall into is concentrating too much on their expertise and knowledge and what they want to say. Speakers should never lose sight of their objective: being clear and persuasive. Intellectually, it is no great leap to make the connection between ‘this is what we do’ and ‘this is how you will benefit’, but in communication terms it represents a completely different challenge. Some actuaries demonstrate knowledge and theory rather than giving concise practical information. All audiences want an interpretation of data and its relevance to them.

The importance of the visual impression
Looking at the way you come across and adjusting your delivery is not a matter of changing personality, or adopting formulaic techniques and textbook gestures. It is about developing the things we all do naturally in personal situations but which we may not apply in professional circumstances.
A large part of the impression any speaker makes on an audience is visual. The sound of the voice is also influential, while what the speaker actually says counts for a lot less than most people would think. Actuaries, like everyone, need to pay attention to their ‘packaging’. This is particularly relevant to those consultancy firms that are broadening their marketing activities. For example, it is quite usual these days for actuaries’ clients to invite them to hold in-house seminars on the broader issues affecting their business and to keep them abreast of key changes in the law.
These seminars may last up to a half a day in some cases. Speakers need to know how to hold their audiences for that length of time!

Avoiding a data overload
Sometimes actuaries can overload their audiences with information. It is the trainer’s job to change this attitude and encourage them to think instead, ‘This tax change has many implications but I will concentrate on the one or two key points I think are most important’. Training helps speakers to look at the whole picture rather than drown in detail.
Because of the importance of accuracy and detail to the profession, there is still a tendency among some actuaries to write out their presentations in full. In this scenario, the presenter will hide behind the lectern and become ‘script bound’. Visual aids are obviously essential to help the audience understand the implications of the message, but not if they contain too much detail. Presentation experts can advise on how to present complex information in a simple step-by-step method, which will neither patronise a knowledgeable audience nor baffle a lay audience.

Responding to questions
A broad view is best when answering questions, and it is important to avoid adding caveats and qualifying statements to every response. Once again, succinct relevant answers will help the questioner more than several minutes of non-essential background information.
Within the actuarial profession, the best speakers recognise that presentation skills can be acquired through training and practice. They know that presenting well earns a reputation for being able to communicate effectively. Careers can founder when a person is perceived as incommunicative and lacking in interpersonal skills. In the competitive market of consultancy a positive presentation can help firms differentiate themselves from others with essentially similar services and expertise. Above all, the ability to demonstrate added practical value rather than dull technical expertise will be the key to improving the image of the actuarial profession in the future.

Some practical tips
– Be prepared Some of the worst presentations are those where the speaker has not devoted enough time to preparation and it is clearly evident to the listener.
– Be brief Whatever the complexities of your subject, keep your presentation simple. Audiences do not absorb information like sponges and will find it impossible to take in a monotonous stream of data delivered in an uninspiring monotone.
– Concentrate on the key facts and messages Recap and summarise frequently. Use hypothetical questions, examples, ironic observations, and topical references to liven up the flow of dry information.
– Listen to the questioner and restrict your answer to the principal point Additional information can be offered after the meeting.