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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

On the bullet-pointed actuary

At what point in history did the idea of a speech, an address, a sermon, a self-sufficient sequence of spoken thoughts, cease to be regarded as one of the norms of oral human expression?The answer would seem to be sometime at the end of the 20th century, the replacement being the Powerpoint presentation. A staccato succession of ‘bullet points’ representing various ‘critical issues’, ‘key drivers’, and the like has become the staple oratorical fare for many. Nowhere is this dominance more apparent than at the various conferences bespeckling the actuarial calendar.Over the conference season, the combined total of bullet points cascading over the bemused attenders of the pensions/life insurance/healthcare/GIRO/ investment conferences must be around 5,000. An impressive 5kbps of presentations! The purpose of this editorial is, however, not to berate the unstoppable bullet-pointification of the commercial world, but to consider the usefulness of our conference activity.Some cynics might say that the conferences exist solely as a means for the profession to generate money, via the combination of enforced attendance (the Conference Participation Diktat of CPD) and curiously high attendance fees – an exaggerated contention, perhaps, but not without a grain of truth. Others might say that the conferences represent a cunning plot by the FSA to keep actuaries out of their offices and off the streets (moving them into a location where some lethal food poisoning could be conveniently administered?). And some might regard conferences simply as a great opportunity for playing ‘bullet point bingo’, an exciting new variant of ‘buzzword bingo’.What, one should ask, are the aims of the average actuary attending such an event? I would suggest the following as being the common aims (falling regrettably into bullet-point-ese, as befits my moral laxity):u to learn something low-level about fields about which one is unaware; u to learn what the rest of the sector is doing in fields in which one is actively working; u to meet old contacts and make new contacts; u to have a reflective break from the office.I have intentionally left out CPD, from a wish not to put the cart before the horse – should conferences, as they are at present, really contribute to a CPD allowance? Why? Do our conferences, as currently designed, really contain a significant proportion of material that ‘develops professionals’?As far as the first of these aims is concerned, many of the conferences I have been to – or read the programmes of – fail to a considerable extent, owing to their concentration on the ‘hot topics’ which the organising committees see as likely to be the prevailing concerns of prospective attenders. How often do conferences present a programme including topics about which you have never heard anything, or topics which might broaden your mind in some way over and above the increased knowledge of regulations? (Hard-working conference organisers and committees, please don’t take offence: the fault lies with all of us, for failing to contribute sufficient ideas or proposals for sessions.)The second aim is sometimes achieved, sometimes not, but my sensation from my own conference attendance and from speaking to others is that practitioners are generally loath to divulge their secrets, and increasingly loath to invest any time except for commercial gain. An obvious consequence of this last point is that many presentations come across as little more than extended marketing pitches, advertising the wares of the presenters’ firms. Perhaps the negative reactions ensuing from the more blatant of these are a good thing for those firms that adopt a listening, customer-tailored approach rather than an aggressive and arrogant one-size-for-all approach? Be that as it may, it seems a shame that the annual conferences of a professional body should be turning from an exercise in the sharing and dissemination of professional knowledge to an exercise in marketing. The third point above, to meet old contacts and to confer with them, is perhaps the best achieved. The fourth point, having some time for thought away from the office, is not suggested in a purely mirthful vein. Taking a break from work for the purpose of stepping back and really thinking about what we are doing is, I suggest, absolutely vital not only for the sake of our personal sanity but to ensure that, in the long term, we do our jobs well. We need to spend more time considering how what we are doing fits – or should fit – into wider contexts.More importantly, we need to ensure that our technical knowledge keeps up with that of bright young qualifiers (or at least, does not lag by more than five tomes’ worth of actuariology). ‘The discerning heart seeks knowledge, but the mouth of a fool feeds on folly’: is sitting in a room for two days gazing at a succession of bullet points likely to answer our professional needs? Probably not – not half as much as would sitting with some actuarial papers and journals on a mountain top, inside a monastery, or at the bottom of a pothole. Write now to book a place at The Actuary magazine’s annual conference, provisionally to be held at Imber Village: it’ll be a bargain at only £500 per person.