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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

The accidental message

In this massively multi-media age, communication has never been so simple. I can send a message around the world in seconds with one click of a mouse. However, with the benefit of simplicity comes the challenge of accidental communication. As actuaries, in our day-to-day work we need to be particularly aware of this threat.

On a late evening flight a couple of months ago, one of the few occasions where I get to read across the spectrum of the press in one sitting, I was struck by the criticism of people’s communication implied in many of the articles I read. Struck, not because of the infamous aggression of the British media, but because much of what was criticised had nothing to do with the actual message sent. Rather, the criticisms stemmed from the manner of the message delivery. On the whole, commentators seemed to be far more concerned with how opinions, viewpoints and ideas were expressed than with the content contained therein.

So, what does this have to do with actuaries? It was the Actuarial Profession that started my thinking on accidental communication, as one such example of a criticism I read was the savaging of an insurance executive (not an actuary) following an investor briefing that was apparently inaccessible to non-actuaries. Somehow the piece, to this reader at least, managed to recognise the complexity of actuarial work while suggesting simultaneously that there was something unnatural about the language of actuarial thought. Perhaps that was the intention of the writer — if not, then they themselves accidentally sent this message to a practitioner reading their comments.

The concerns about how actuaries, as a profession, communicate with stakeholders are not new. Within the general insurance community this point was raised by the GRIT (reserving) taskforce and perhaps even more vocally by the GRIP (pricing) group. Finding ever more appealing means of articulating difficult concepts and analyses is a great step forward, but it only really addresses the deliberate part of communication. The accidental piece is worthy of more consideration, and involves a better understanding of your audience.

To explain what I mean by accidental communication, consider the following: an actuary who, in possession of great analysis and results, has successfully communicated a complex message in simple form and yet left the audience unwilling to support the recommendations despite their compelling reason.

The second reference that jarred on my flight was a great parallel to this situation — the savage criticism of Gail Trimble following her exceptional individual performance in guiding her team to win the University Challenge final (admittedly before the team’s disqualification on a technicality). While all the snipers acknowledged her fantastic questionanswer ability, they focused instead on the way in which she answered the questions, finding her style less than endearing, posting their feelings far and wide on internet forums. Now, she was genuinely trying to win a quiz show and not the public vote on a talent show, so I think the mass criticism was inappropriate, but this does stimulate the question: Do we ask ourselves often enough how much ‘public vote’ we need in our daily business as well as the clearly articulated actuarial content?

If we fail to see the world through the eyes of our stakeholders, we risk making the ‘right’ message unpalatable, and may end up undermining our own cause. The actuary who comes across as knowing more about pricing than an underwriter may be on firm statistical footing but may never get to share their insight. Perhaps more worryingly, the ease of modern communication means that our accidental message can be seen by millions with relative ease.

It is perhaps for this reason that I am grateful for my time on these business flights: it is a valuable time to read and be reminded of the perils of forgetting what your accidental audience cares about.