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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Soft Skills: More than words

For most actuaries, it’s a love of maths, statistics, probabilities and risk analysis that draws them into the profession. However, once they’ve been fully trained in these hard skills, working life throws up new challenges. If you’re a consulting actuary, for example, you‘ll often have to explain complex ideas to clients who are not experts in the field - and even if you work in-house, explaining your work to colleagues is a crucial part of your role.

So mastering communication is essential. Since these days we use written communication more than we’ve ever done before, you need to be able to write ­- and to write well. Being able to explain yourself clearly and write in plain English can help you to gain credibility and increases the perceived value of your work. In turn, this will help ensure your clients or colleagues realise that what you do is an integral part of the organisation.

Writing is a core professional skill that must be learned and then continually improved. The demands of business writing and the rigours of producing professional reports are very different from the English learnt at school.

It should come as no surprise then that the actuarial profession has changed the CA3 Communications syllabus for trainee actuaries, in order to focus on writing for a non-actuarial audience. The Institute of Actuaries and the Faculty of Actuaries have introduced a residential course and workbook to help give students support and practice in this type of writing before they take the written exam. They have recognised that many students struggle with this module and they want to ensure that actuaries are able to express their ideas confidently through writing.

Employers are also putting more and more emphasis on writing skills. Some firms have commissioned specialist writing-training programmes for their actuarial staff, for example.

So what can you do in practice? Well, imagine that you have completed a report on corporate pensions. You need to present it to a client who has staffing issues, an upcoming annual general meeting to prepare for and several other reports to read. The bottom line is that he is only interested in the financial implications of your report. You need to make an impact and ensure that your ideas are fully understood. If you get the communication wrong, you could lose valuable business.

Actuarial trainees will soon have to make an oral presentation as part of their exams. For trainees and qualified actuaries alike, explaining actuarial mathematics to a layperson is not an easy prospect, and the better you can become at communicating your ideas, the more effective you will be as an actuary. Training doesn’t end when you qualify and learning writing techniques can make all the difference to your professional life.

Here are my top tips for improving your written communication:

Put the reader first
Presenting complex figures, modelling techniques or probability theories doesn’t have to be a daunting prospect. The answer is to think carefully about your audience and avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Ask yourself the following questions:

>> What is the document about?
>> Who will read it?
>> How much do they already know about the subject?
>> What do they absolutely need to know?
>> How important is the subject to them?
>> How interested are they in the subject?

Don’t include absolutely everything about a piece of research or a new idea. Instead, pare down to the main points and write them in plain English. This doesn’t mean that you need to dumb down or be patronising though. The message is to be as clear and precise as possible, and this means using technical language where appropriate. Jargon doesn’t have to be avoided at all costs - just make sure that your audience understands the technical terms you’re using (and always bear in mind that they may no less than they care to admit).

The aim is to save the reader time and wasted effort in trying to decipher unclear prose. Try to picture your reader with your document. If you’re writing for a trustee, for instance, it’s likely they’ll have to read several reports before a meeting. So make sure that your introduction grabs the reader’s attention by immediately conveying your conclusions and recommendations with a concise, powerful executive summary.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a report, memo, letter or speech - ask yourself what you want the reader to do when they have read the document. If you want them to take an action, you need to be direct.

Clarify your main message
Always offer a clear viewpoint. Keep asking yourself what you really want to communicate. It can seem like dangerous ground to express an opinion, but it’s likely that your clients will see it as refreshing. Do this by using the active voice. So say, ‘we predict a decline in employee pension provision’, rather than ‘employee pension provision is predicted to decline’.

Keep it short
Keep your sentences short and simple and avoid flowery phrases. There is no limit on the amount of full stops you can use. Aim for an average length of 15-20 words, with an absolute maximum of 35, and stick to the rule of one sentence, one idea.

Pay attention to structure
If you’re worried about structuring your ideas, the questions: what? where? when? how? why? and who? are useful prompts. When you know what you want to communicate and why, you can then lay out your core idea first and expand on it in the rest of the document.

Proofread every piece of work
It’s easy to neglect to read through a document carefully once it’s finished: don’t. If at all possible, leave at least a day before you read it, to put some distance between you and the content. Otherwise you’ll ‘read’ what you think it says, not what it actually does.

Look out for fuzzy thoughts, typos or badly-worded phrases and make sure that you check grammar, punctuation and spelling. Microsoft Word’s spellcheck doesn’t know whether you mean peak or peek. Writing the wrong word can completely change your intended meaning and affect how your work is received.

Student focus: how to ace your written exams
An important skill that the actuarial exams test is the ability to explain your mathematical calculations and results in words. The first step is to ask yourself what your main message is. If you had to just say one thing about your conclusion, what would it be? The next is to think about your reader. Remember they may not have the same logic as you. Make a short bullet point plan of the step-by-step actions you took to reach your conclusion. Then expand on each of these. Ask yourself what you did and why, and write down the answers to these questions.

It can take awhile to have the confidence to present your knowledge through writing. Focus on explaining your work to laypeople and practise on your friends and family. Being able to present your ideas orally is a precursor to getting them down on paper - and it’s a skill that will last you for the rest of your career.

A free copy of The Write Stuff will help you with the writing process. This 60-page guide contains the very essence of good writing. Emphasis has agreed to send a copy free of charge to the first 100 readers of The Actuary to contact them. Email tessa.gooding@writing-skills.com to get your copy.

Robert Ashton is chief executive of Emphasis, the specialist business writing trainers.