Jean Eu gives advice on how to present well, get your message across and ensure your audience engages with it and remembers you
It is widely accepted that being able to communicate effectively is a key skill for actuaries. However, I suspect many do not often have the opportunity to put these skills into practice. While actuaries do deliver presentations, I would hazard a guess that most of these presentations are internal, to other actuarial colleagues, or to colleagues/associates with a financial mindset, who are generally familiar with company-specific terminology.
Over the past five years in my current role, I've had the incredible opportunity to practise and refine my communication skills to non-actuaries in a live environment. I have also been exposed to a wide range of communication styles and abilities, having previously been lead assessor and exam counsellor for the IFoA's CA3 communications exam. I would therefore like to share my top tips and some of my thoughts around communications.
While there has been plenty of focus on written communications and presentation skills, not much is often said about verbal communication. In other words, how do you get your point across in a meeting with no visual aids, or on a phone call where you can't see the other person?
The following points are key
Introduce your topic. In a meeting, I have always found it useful to give a brief one-sentence introduction to the analysis or numbers you are about to present. With a packed agenda, most people need reminding as to what you were planning to talk about, and it gives attendees a few seconds to get themselves in the right headspace.
Break it down. What is obvious to you is not obvious to others. In order to get others on the same page, it is sometimes necessary to break down the steps to a particular conclusion, even if it takes longer to say it. For example, rather than saying "Persistency has worsened so premiums are higher," it may be better to say "Persistency has worsened, in other words more people are lapsing, so we have to allow for the fact that less people are expected to remain on our portfolio. Hence we need to charge higher premiums to achieve the same level of profit on the overall portfolio."
Use simpler words. It is easy to use long or 'jargon' words to get your point across, but they may serve to hinder rather than enhance understanding. For example, rather than "mortality has deteriorated for inforce policies", it may be better to say "more people are claiming than we had expected in our current portfolio of policyholders".
Everyone takes in information differently. Expect to have to repeat yourself in a meeting. Often when explaining a technical concept, some people catch on quicker than others. These people may proceed with asking you follow up questions, while others are still trying to fathom your initial explanations. While I try to make my explanations as simple as possible, I accept that I am not completely infallible, so will try different ways of explaining a concept to others. Usually, I manage to get everyone on board within two to three attempts.
What's the bottom line? Make sure to relate your summary or conclusion to the concepts or numbers that are most important to the people you are speaking to. If they are interested in sales, then make sure you draw the link between your numbers and the impact on sales. If they are interested in the profit and loss accounting, make sure you explain the impact on profitability. This helps the audience to understand why the point you are making is important.
How to present effectively
Most people who are asked to give a presentation often create a presentation based on what they think their audience might want to know. It would be better, if you are able, to ask your key audience members what it is they want to know. This allows you to ensure not only that your presentation is generally interesting, but that it also hits the key areas of concern for your audience.
I often find myself refining presentations in order to strike the right balance between keeping things simple and explaining enough of the detail so that the conclusions make sense.
I believe that the following points are particularly relevant in any presentation:
Tell a story. Make sure your presentation has a clear beginning, middle and end, and that you can clearly draw the link for the audience between each section. The more you can pull together into a coherent story, the easier it becomes for the audience to understand your key points.
Keep your slides uncluttered. Less is more; slides that are too busy can either distract or confuse the audience. I favour using more slides to explain different aspects of a particular point, than to try and squeeze everything onto one slide.
Use diagrams. Apart from adding variety to your slides, a diagram accompanied by relevant verbal explanation is often a better way to convey a technical point, as it allows the audience to visualise certain concepts more easily.
Check understanding. After each section, particularly any technical sections, check with the audience that they have understood your explanations and/or if they have any questions at that point. Ensuring that everyone is on the same page periodically allows you to get the most out of your presentation, as the audience is better able to engage with your entire presentation to the end.
Speak slowly and pause. For an effective presentation, most people need to speak at a slower pace than normal conversational speed. If someone is not used to the cadence of your speech it may take them a while to catch on to what you are saying, therefore the first few points you make may get lost. Furthermore, slowing down
allows you to enunciate your words better, which makes your presentation much more effective, especially to a larger or international audience.
Do not shy away from pauses during your presentation.
Often these are useful, either to allow the audience to digest a point you have just made, or to digest new information on a slide.
Are actuaries trained to communicate?
Although communication skills have been recognised as essential for actuaries, I have never been convinced that actuaries receive sufficient training in this regard. Despite having an exam topic on communications, it would appear that many students view passing this exam as having an element of 'pot luck'. However, if communication skills are only learnt by example, and their only example has been other actuaries within their organisation with potentially less-than-ideal communication skills, then it is no surprise that the effectiveness of these learnt skills contain an element of luck.
As with any skill, relevant training needs to be in place in order for the skill to be effectively developed. For communications in particular, I believe that the key to successful training is the creation of a feedback loop; people who receive personalised feedback on their particular communication style will learn much more than those who are simply given generic communication rules. Unfortunately, this is not how communication skills are taught in the workplace, or for the IFoA communications exam.
While the focus of actuarial communications is usually around communicating technical information to non-actuaries, it may be argued that this particular skill is only applicable to actuaries in a particular type of role. However, there is a wider set of communication skills that are much more relevant to all actuaries in business, such as verbal communications, interpersonal communications, negotiation, active listening and networking. These skills are essential for making actuaries marketable as valuable business people, not just technicians.
With globalisation, I believe that it is becoming much more important to teach our actuaries of tomorrow how to communicate within a wider business setting. If this is combined with a strong technical base and an ability to translate technical actuarial concepts to a non-technical audience, then we will make actuaries more effective business assets in the workplace.
Jean Eu is a senior actuary at Correlation Risk Partners. She was also lead assessor and exam counsellor for the IFoA CA3 Communications exam