Developing key skills for effective communicationAugust/September 2018
The Vision Statement of the Society of Actuaries (SOA) establishes communication skills as one of the key drivers of our success as a profession. Arguably, the profession and the SOA have made great strides over the years in enhancing our communication tools. Our publications, including this magazine, numerous section newsletters, SOA research reports and the SOA website have undergone significant redesign in an effort to reach audiences within and outside of the profession. Meanwhile, global expansion and the continuing demand for actuarial services fuel substantial growth in SOA membership. Our professional reach has never been wider.
Yet, the perception remains that individual actuaries are not good enough at communication. Stakeholder surveys and anecdotal comments emphasize improvement is needed in this fundamental area. Every actuary needs to be able to explain his or her work and to make recommendations to the appropriate audience.
The Professional Development Committee (PDC) has undertaken a strategy in recent years to provide opportunities to grow our communication skills. To some extent, this is a cultural change for the SOA and its members, driven by external factors. In a highly simplified Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis, our strength has always been in technical expertise, with communication skills viewed as a weakness for us. In today’s world, there are many threats to a profession built solely on technical expertise. The opportunity lies in combining technical expertise with communication skills. Seizing this opportunity requires effort on both individual and organizational levels.
The SOA refers to a Competency Framework in designing and evaluating our continuing professional development programs. Among the eight competencies is Communication, to both technical and nontechnical audiences. Traditional actuarial education is largely focused on developing our personal technical skills and industry knowledge. With the use of e-Learning modules in pre-qualification education, which includes practical exercises such as summarizing findings in a written submission as well as a required oral presentation on an actuarial topic at the Fellowship Admissions Course (FAC), many SOA members have now been introduced to the practical communication aspects of actuarial work before achieving their designations. This creates a responsibility to support continuing education for all members on these topics.
Communication at SOA Meetings
To foster improved communication skills, the PDC is increasing emphasis on the topic at existing SOA meetings. The agendas for major meetings have always identified which competencies are covered by each session. We would like to see the Communication competency highlighted as a component of more sessions. We encourage speakers to include discussion of communication methods in the content of each session. For example, a speaker at a technically oriented session could spend a few minutes on how best to deliver the results presented to a nontechnical audience. This could consist of explaining how graphics and data visualizations can be used to make major points clear, or emphasizing simple questions that your report to management or a client should be sure to answer.
Beginning this year, you can filter SOA meeting agendas by competency and identify sessions with significant communication skills content. We have added a question to the session surveys for each meeting, asking if suitable content is included that would help you explain the methods and results presented to your audience. This is intended to give us a measure of our success in delivering material to help attendees improve their communication skills, as well as to spread awareness among speakers that addressing communication skills is important.
We have introduced additional preparation support for members who volunteer as session moderators and speakers at SOA meetings. Speakers have access to a video library of presentation best practices. A speaker mentoring program was offered for several SOA Annual Meetings & Exhibits. Updated material for moderators, many of whom are new SOA meeting volunteers, is available on the SOA website. These resources help volunteers who are planning their own presentations to be better communicators.
We introduced the Outstanding Session Awards program for speakers at major meetings. These awards are selected based on attendee feedback and are typically awarded to speakers who are excellent communicators. That is how they achieve high scores on the session surveys! We provide all speakers with feedback on their sessions so they can track and improve their skills over time.
Additional Learning Avenues
Many of the SOA e-Learning modules are available for self-study as continuing professional development. This includes the capstone Decision-Making and Communication (DMAC) module that has been a key component of FSA education for more than 10 years. DMAC covers processes associated with big decisions, including successful collaboration with stakeholders and the key skills that comprise effective communication: listening, writing and speaking.
One of the PDC’s major efforts in the last year was to introduce the Predictive Analytics Certificate program. Given the “black box” opacity of many predictive models, the ability to analyze and communicate results is critical. The certificate program includes a final project with a significant communications component that is comparable to one of the learning objectives of the new Predictive Analytics Exam: “to effectively communicate results of an analysis and any limitations and uncertainties.”
SOA sections sponsor dozens of seminars and webinars throughout the year, many of which include thoughts on communication. One example specifically focused on communication was the “Best Practices in Health Studies” seminar that was offered adjacent to the Health Meeting in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This seminar included informative presentations about data visualization as well as talks and hands-on work on written communication.
I encourage members and candidates to consider how SOA resources and programs can fit into their strategy for professional and personal development. If you have more ideas on how we can support you, please let the PDC know.