Straight Talk

Four perspectives on communication fundamentals Jason Alleyne, Stephen Camilli, Terri Michalewicz and Milanthi Sarukkali

Communication plays a fundamental role in all facets of our lives. It’s essential to focus on developing and fostering communication, as good communication is key to building and maintaining relationships and team spirit in the workplace. The Actuary asked a panel of four individuals to address various aspects of communication—including areas for improvement, the importance of communication, how we can grow as communicators and other related topics. Participants are Jason Alleyne, FSA, FCIA, FIA, FRM; Stephen Camilli, FSA; Terri Michalewicz; and Milanthi Sarukkali, FSA, Ph.D.

Milanthi Sarukkali

Improving Communication Styles

Sarukkali: Self-awareness and introspection are key to improving your communication skills. Analyzing your communication style and techniques after each important meeting, presentation or even email exchanges, and considering what influences your communication style had on the eventual outcome, positive or negative, can help you understand what needs to be improved. Directly asking for feedback from others who were a part of that communication can also help identify strengths and weaknesses. There are plenty of videos and podcasts that one can use on-the-go that can help improve communication skills.

Terri Michalewicz

Refining Written and Verbal Communication

Michalewicz: I’ve seen areas where we all can improve our communication—not just actuaries. Everyone should keep things simple and concise, particularly in business. Whether communication is verbal or written, a clean and effective style follows these steps:

  1. Set the situation.
  2. State the idea.
  3. Describe how it works.
  4. Highlight the benefits.
  5. Close the circle.

We all can be guilty of getting lost in the details, but an actuary is more likely to give an overabundance of detail that can complicate the message. This may cause listeners to become confused and frustrated. Keep the end result in mind and don’t get caught up in explaining methodology unless it’s relevant. Resist using actuarial jargon, and simplify the message using analogies and examples as much as possible. Streamline information so it always leads to the end result. When creating presentations, keep slides clean, simple and uncluttered so they’re easy to read and follow. When writing reports or articles, open strongly with a summary of what will be conveyed. If the report is segmented, separate sections with meaningful titles and use bullet points when appropriate. Conclude with a recommendation, thought-provoking question or strong summation of what the audience should take away.

Stephen Camilli

The Importance of Face-to-Face Communication

Camilli: In our time of practicality and results-oriented conversations, we often lose sight of the human element and the importance of emotional and personal connections with our coworkers.

There was an excellent article, “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic,” in the Harvard Business Review written by the former surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy, about the changing face of work and our country’s loneliness epidemic. Based on this article, our company implemented a new agenda item for our staff meetings called the “Inside Scoop,” where a staff member shares a 5- to 10-minute story through photos on a topic of their choice. I went first and told a story about my deep passion for ultimate frisbee, and in our next meeting, I was followed by a colleague who shared about his hobby of tabletop and online gaming. I find that when we take the time to make ourselves a bit more vulnerable and create deeper personal relationships in the workplace, not only does it make our overall life better, but it also improves our ability to put out an excellent work product.

Michalewicz: In this age of digital convenience, relying solely on emails and texts is all too easy. They’re quick and right at our fingertips. But face-to-face communication is still king. A large portion of communication is nonverbal. Actual human interaction fosters collaboration, trust and expansion of ideas. Being an active listener allows you to get at the root of what a person is trying to convey by asking clarifying questions, which also builds a stronger relationship. If you are part of a virtual team, or if you’re required to put something in writing, always follow up by phone to determine if there is a need for further clarification. Use FaceTime or GoTo Meeting, when practical, to minimize the impersonal feel.

Jason Alleyne

Improving the Art of Communication

Alleyne: The key learning skill to effective communication is self-awareness and humility. Our profession has long been the king of the hill in our traditional practice spheres. We are not well-practiced in collaborating, taking advice and new learning, because in many of our core practice areas we are the lead professional. To truly be a super-influencer, we as a profession need to rely less on our regulatory-granted position of power and more on the unique insights we can discern from the vast oceans of data available in any field.

Our best professionals are those who learn to collaborate through their humility, continual learning and willingness to accept criticism. The only education I know for that is to be agile and to embrace design thinking and lean innovation. There are various avenues to learn these. But the student of such matters can only be successful if there is a willingness to try, and he or she must be able to accept failure. Communication in this regard is about expressing the insights and lessons learned from a project that has “failed.” This requires professionalism, honesty and integrity. We practice this every day in our InsurTech company. And I can tell you it is much harder to do than to write about (or to study in a classroom).

Communication Barriers in the Workplace

Sarukkali: Communication between managers and subordinates may not always be open. This is more prominent in Asia, where cultural influences make subordinates reluctant to question or provide feedback to managers directly and openly. Managers also may be providing only one-sided feedback—for example, always focusing on negative feedback.

I have seen some core teams within organizations feeling unappreciated and lost because the company objectives have not been communicated to them properly. Open dialogue between management and employees can alleviate such problems. However, again due to cultural influences, employees tend to believe that they are expected to follow orders, not contribute toward a common goal.

Promoting open dialogue vertically and laterally is key to overcoming such barriers. In our company, we have weekly one-on-one meetings between managers and their direct reports, in which the manager is expected to dedicate that time to provide guidance and feedback, and understand issues faced by his or her subordinates. This is not common in the market we practice in, and it is something I found very helpful in the early days of my career in the United States.

Keep Presentations Interesting

Camilli: I find that in communication, as the old saying goes in baseball, “It’s all about the fundamentals.” When planning a presentation, begin with the end, and ask yourself: “What do I want to communicate with this presentation? What do I want people to know at the end?”

Respect your audience, and spend some time putting yourself in their shoes. What kind of presentation would you like to hear? Would you want the slides read to you?

Don’t bury the lead. Start with your main point, and don’t give a rundown of everything you want to accomplish during the presentation.

Have fun! If you sound bored, your audience is going to be bored, too. Have a story or an example to go with each theoretical point. Many studies show that people remember stories and narrative better than facts, so have a story, anecdote or example to illustrate key points. This drives a theoretical point deeper, can illustrate key areas that may be confusing and gives your audience an emotional connection to the topic and to you.

Communication and Career Growth

Alleyne: The way we work is very different from just 10 years ago. The knowledge and skill sets required to be successful are constantly changing. The pace of the pace of change is positive and increasing. So in my company, we use a project-based approach to our recruitment. We’d rather see how a new candidate can assimilate new knowledge to produce a meaningful result by giving the candidate a small project. This in turn allows the candidate to demonstrate his or her communication skills in delivering the key insights from the project. The work environment is now more likely to be one of myriad projects, and we need our people to take ownership and get results, and then share insights effectively. This has proven to be an effective approach to recruitment both for us and the candidates.

Fostering Two-Way Communication

Michalewicz: Two-way communication actually has four components: a sender, a receiver, a message and a response. If any component fails, communication breaks down. Whether reading or hearing it, the receiver must correctly interpret the message as it was intended. To complete the communication, an appropriate response should be returned to the sender. It sounds so simple, but the reality can be far more complex.

Many of us are quite good at executing the nuts and bolts of our jobs, but we may struggle with two-way communication. This can be particularly true when we need to interact with people outside of our area of expertise, let alone outside of our industry. One thing that really helps is to be an active and engaged listener. Don’t jump ahead in your mind to what you want to say next. Make it clear that you care about and hear what the other person is saying. Ask clarifying questions. It can be helpful to respond, “What I heard you say was …” and then rephrase their words in order to be sure the message was received correctly. Asking someone to “show me” what the issue is can be powerful as well. Another potential pitfall comes from having difficulty in the area of emotional intelligence, which is simply reading cues from others and adapting your response appropriately. The good news is that we can become aware of communication deficiencies, which puts us on the path to improvement.

Changes in Communication Strategies

Camilli: Technology advances have made it incredibly easy to communicate with actuaries across the country and the globe at little or no cost. It has also enabled us to work from multiple locations with ease, thus building remote teams. I now communicate with many more people than in the past. Nevertheless, upon self- reflection, I realize I now sometimes give less prior thought to my communication than I did when it cost a significant amount of money, such as making an international phone call, or when I had to take the time to put something down in writing and print it out. I also am dedicating less time, due to simple math, to each individual with whom I communicate, and to each relationship.

So, great flexibility in communication can lead to a lack of depth if we are not intentional about how and when we communicate. Ease of communication should not lead us to value our communication less, or put less thought into how we communicate.

Cal Newport wrote a great book titled Deep Work about strategies to do more focused work and the possible detrimental effects of technology. I think a great companion to that book that we all should read (once somebody writes it) would be titled Deep Relationships.

Because we can communicate so easily on a global level, we tend to communicate less with those who are closest to us physically, which can have a real, negative effect on our workplace culture, the richness of our relationships and, ultimately, our lives.

Milanthi Sarukkali, FSA, Ph.D., is CEO and principal consultant, Spark Actuarial and Risk Consultants in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Terri Michalewicz is president of LCM Associates, an actuarial executive search and coaching firm located in in Newnan, Georgia.
Stephen Camilli, FSA, is president of ACTEX Learning, an actuarial education company.
Jason Alleyne, FSA, FCIA, FIA, FRM, is the COO & managing director, Asia-Pacific at Besurance Corporation, a Canadian InsurTech company. He resides in Hong Kong.