Lost in Translation?

The art of multidisciplinary messaging as it applies to actuaries Steve Bowen

Photo: iStock.com/Olivier Le Moal

Conveying the complex in a simple, memorable way is the real art of effective communication. It is not always easy, but it’s invariably rewarding when your mission is to not only land your message but drive subsequent engagement.

Similar to most professional fields, actuaries are often required to disseminate information across multiple disciplines, with the nuanced end result needing to be delivered to niche or specific audiences. This can make it challenging to summarize the huge volume of actuarial data and complex intelligence.

As a long-time nonactuarial contributor and volunteer with the Society of Actuaries (SOA), as well as an active participant with the International Actuarial Association (IAA) and the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS), I’ve developed a unique relationship with the actuarial profession. Being an outsider has afforded me the opportunity to see firsthand how actuaries establish wide-ranging, data-driven viewpoints and publish insights in various reports and other thought-leadership pieces. And while I have the utmost respect for the depth of understanding and the sheer volume of knowledge created by my peers in the actuarial profession, the lessons I’ve learned in my varied career as a meteorologist working in television and the private sector, including now the head of science at a reinsurance broker, might help actuaries ensure their message is heard.

I do not, in any way, claim to have a one-size-fits-all suite of solutions to deliver the perfect set of messages. Communicating to a general public audience brings a slew of challenges in how, when and where to deliver the message. But the overriding approach of distilling the message to its core will aid engagement.

Simplifying the Technical

I began my professional career working in television as a meteorologist in Florida. This included highly active Atlantic hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005, which resulted in several landfalls and near misses in the state. We were faced with many complex messaging scenarios that needed to answer the who, what, when, where and why questions, given the very real risks to life and property.

The biggest lesson I took from my time in television was learning to simplify the technical intel as much as possible without losing the primary content of the message itself. I developed a technique that takes a complex topic and strips it down to a basic premise that a broader audience can understand. This technique is applicable to assorted modes of communication, including public speaking or any scenario where an audience is learning—and trying to absorb—material for the first time.

Keep in mind that just because a topic is complex, it does not mean that all its intricacies must be lost when presenting or writing about the material. The key is exhibiting the material in a way that engages an audience at a level they can understand while not leaving them feeling insulted or talked down to. This allows for audience “buy-in” and a greater desire to keep paying attention to learn more. It also inevitably sparks more open dialogue because the audience feels like they “get” the material and are curious to dig deeper beyond the initial presentation.

The key is knowing what to communicate in the first place. Whether you’re an actuary or not, we all encounter people with different backgrounds and experiences in our daily lives. Our brains naturally learn to adjust to decide what we want other people to know. The challenge in a professional setting is to articulate a topic, trend or numbers we know extremely well to others who do not have the same knowledge base. Many of us, actuaries included, often correlate a highly detailed and comprehensive presentation or academic-style paper as a justification in proving ourselves.

Focus on Your Audience

The reality is that someone who can communicate a topic at both a highly detailed and the most basic levels shows a great fundamental understanding and ownership of the material. You should be able to explain your message in a single sentence. Otherwise, generally, the message is too complicated. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, especially if the point of the communication is to present highly complex material to a deeply technical crowd. It comes down to knowing your audience.

Another challenge is that we live in the soundbite era, where we increasingly are programmed to read information in short segments. The challenge (or curse?) of social media is that it limits how much you can communicate. A regular piece of feedback I receive from my posts on Twitter is that my data visualization and corresponding text are often “too simple.” That’s intentional. The purpose is not to flaunt scientific credentials but to present information in a way that a much bigger audience can digest. It builds credibility. It builds trust. It builds appreciation.

My 15-plus years in the insurance industry have been similar to my television career regarding how I seek to translate material to professionals across a vast spectrum of public- and private-sector entities. Topics such as climate change, natural hazards, socioeconomic parameters, construction practices (where and how), and environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues are far from simple. But given their importance to the public, we need to be as clear as possible in leading these difficult but essential conversations. If we only talk to select or privileged audiences, we only will amplify the knowledge gaps and social inequalities that are already present.

That’s why the focus always must be on who are we writing for or talking to. Suppose information is well presented and well communicated. In that case, the audience generally would connect with the message and take ownership of it, establishing it in their knowledge bank rather than the information going in one ear and out the other. Such ownership of the messaging should be a key focus: We must have a clear vision of what we want the audience to take away.

Overcoming Communication Challenges

Some of the most appealing projects and committee appointments I’ve had with the actuarial profession have been when I collaborate with people in the field. Despite coming from different backgrounds, there is a shared sense of organic curiosity to better understand differing skill sets and areas of expertise. One challenge I encounter is the nonlinear definition of the same word or phrase for different professions. This issue led to the creation of a “terminology” section in the SOA Research Institute’s quarterly newsletter from the Catastrophe and Climate Strategic Research Group. We highlight common terminology in the weather and climate realm that may have entirely different meanings for actuaries or data scientists.

Similarly, in my role as chief science officer at Gallagher Re, I’m faced with a unique position of needing to drive strategy and translate such scientific material to executive leadership in clear, succinct and compelling ways. However, I also need to get into the weeds with data and identify emerging trends that can not only lead to opportunities for the firm but also open collaborative avenues with academics, policy stakeholders or governmental entities that may want to explore topics further. My goal is to expand our professional network and subsequently improve the quality of our output by proving that collaboration breeds trust and credibility in the public setting.

When musing on messaging, we also must remember that the foundation of the insurance industry is to help people in their time of need. As an industry driven by actuarially sound underwriting decisions, we must often remind ourselves that our focus cannot always be numbers. It also needs to be about people and living up to the core principle of how and why the industry came to be in the first place.

The bottom line is we cannot work in silos. Getting too comfortable or having tunnel vision may force us to miss out on chances to work with other professions—including those that may seem obscure to collaborate with on paper but can make a lot of sense once you realize the similarities. For example, I initially did not consider working in the insurance industry as a meteorologist. Still, the fit became obvious after recognizing the direct overlap between science and insurance claims and hazard risk. It’s a career change that I am still thrilled to have made.

One of my biggest takeaways from the multiyear effects of COVID-19 and subsequent challenges tied to global inflation has been the recognition of how interconnected the world continues to be. We need to be cognizant of the work we do and where there might be potential for working together. The volume of data grows exponentially by the second. How we interpret this data can lead to revolutionary discoveries that improve our understanding of how the world works and our overall quality of life.

As we increasingly work with people across different countries, cultures, backgrounds and professional disciplines, we also need to be more acutely aware of how we communicate and strive for clarity in what we say. When, for example, individuals are most comfortable speaking in numbers, I would urge them to learn other ways to articulate their messages more broadly.

Our world is evolving, and it is evolving fast. So, let’s start by simplifying our messaging and encouraging people to learn about our respective specialties to introduce a new generation to highly rewarding career paths. What we say and how we say it matters. We’ve never had more avenues to reach audiences than we have today. Let’s do it wisely.

Steve Bowen is chief science officer at Gallagher Re in Chicago. He has a Master of Science in Business Analytics from the University of Notre Dame and a Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University.

Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.