This is an audio transcript of the Working It podcast episode: ‘Clearer communication is a workplace superpower’

Ros Atkins
It’s my experience that the best way of both settling yourself on how you feel and communicating effectively is to prepare. Let’s prepare for these moments because if you do, you might be surprised how well they can go and how brilliant you can be.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Hello and welcome to Working It from the Financial Times. I’m Isabel Berwick. Today’s topic is a big one: communication. We all have to communicate for our work — in meetings, in person, by email — but how can we do it most effectively? The voice you just heard was Ros Atkins. He’s been a BBC journalist for more than 20 years, and his explainer videos, which lay out complicated stories, are a huge hit with audiences. They regularly go viral online. Ros has just released a book called The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence. Whatever your role at work, that’s a skill worth learning, and Ros understands it better than most. He has some really great tips about how we can make our communication more direct and more effective and how important that is for getting what you want at work. We’ll hear more from Ros in just a couple of minutes. But first, I wanted to talk to Pilita Clark. Pilita is an FT associate editor and business columnist, and she’s written several times about how much she hates unclear communication. Pilita has reported on business, politics and the climate, so she’s had more than her fair share of jargon. I asked her why she hates it so much.

Pilita Clark
What really annoys me is I’m sure what annoys everybody when they’re confronted with a piece of jargon they don’t understand is that it slows you down. You have to stop and say, hang on, what am I reading here? It’s just a waste of time if you don’t understand what it is. So that’s the most infuriating thing. And if you’re in a hurry, which most people tend to be, then it’s just a pointless and annoying time suck. The other thing about it, I suppose, is that it makes you feel left out if you don’t understand it very often, which is precisely why people use jargon, of course. I think any impediment to clear communication is always going to be something that you desperately want to avoid in any kind of business setting, really, because the whole aim of so much business is to get a message across quickly, cleanly and clearly. And jargon does not help you do that.

Isabel Berwick
It can feel intoxicating when you’re part of that in-group, though, can’t it? I mean, it can feel really good, I think.

Pilita Clark
That is one of the reasons that researchers have found that people like jargon because it does make you feel closer to colleagues. You can bond more easily. The other reason that people tend to like it is because they’ve discovered that it makes you feel better and more superior, particularly if you’re feeling slightly insecure. They’ve done these really interesting studies in the US where they’ve given a bunch of MBA students the task of promoting a business that they’re trying to sell to venture capitalists. They’re trying to get investment in a business and they give the MBA students two sets of pitch documents. One is this awful jargon-drenched rubbish, and the other is super clear and easy to understand. And they tell the students, right, you can use either document. They both have the same amount of information, but you should just know that the other team you’re going up against are really successful entrepreneurs — so it’s gonna be pretty hard to beat them. So choose which one you want. And invariably, if they feel as though they’re under threat and they need more help and reinforcement, they’ll go for the jargon document. It’s really interesting. I think, you know, there’s a sense that maybe we can bamboozle people with stuff they don’t understand and that’ll give us a lead. So there are invariably these very human reasons why we resort to jargon, but that is no excuse, basically, in most situations.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
Pilita is pretty clear on why jargon wins her up, but many of us do use jargon as a bit of a safety net because we lack confidence in what we’re saying and we want to project authority. More often than not, that approach is pretty transparent and there’s a much better way to go about these key conversations at work. I spoke to Ros Atkins to find out how he does it, and I started by asking him a little bit about how he got to where he is today.

Ros Atkins
I’m a journalist for BBC News, my job title’s analysis editor, which is a gig I started last year and before becoming analysis editor I was a news presenter on a number of different programmes for BBC TV and before that BBC Radio.

Isabel Berwick
Have you been at the BBC all your career?

Ros Atkins
Not all my career, but all of my career as a news journalist. So I’ve been there coming on for 22 years now.

Isabel Berwick
And you’re best known now for your explainer videos. I think you’ve got teenage daughters, how do they feel about having a viral dad?

Ros Atkins
(Laughter) I’ve got one teenage daughter. Our older one is just 17 and our younger daughter is coming on for 12. And they’re interested to an extent in what I do. But I think you’ve also got to bear in mind that even if you are lucky enough to have what you’re making being shared a lot on one social platform, that’s not necessarily gonna cross over to another. And so, for example, Twitter is obviously very popular, but it’s not very heavily used at all by 17-year-olds, for example. And so I think sometimes, even my best-performing videos don’t necessarily cut across into their world that much, nor the world of their friends.

Isabel Berwick
You’re not dancing on TikTok, in other words.

Ros Atkins
I’m definitely not doing that. And if you catch me doing that, have a word.

Isabel Berwick
So you’ve written a book about communicating in a concise and clear way, but what is it about explaining things that gets people in a tizz, ‘cause it does, doesn’t it?

Ros Atkins
Do you think it does?

Isabel Berwick
Yes.

Ros Atkins
In what way?

Isabel Berwick
I think in a formal setting, particularly if you’ve got to present something in a meeting or you’ve got to talk to your boss. It’s nerves plus content, isn’t it?

Ros Atkins
I think that’s a good way of putting it, nerves plus content. And I would say that the nerves are completely understandable and the concerns around how you’re gonna shape all of this content is understandable. And I suppose one of the reasons I wrote the book is that sometimes I’ll be talking to people and they’ll talk about their frustration that those moments haven’t gone better, but then I’ll also talk to them about, well, how did you prepare for that? And sometimes they’ve thought about what they want to say, but they haven’t necessarily gone through much of a process in terms of picking out the information they want to use, shaping how they’re gonna share that information, calibrating that information for whoever you’re addressing. And it’s my experience that the best way of both settling yourself on how you feel and communicating effectively is to prepare. And so really the book is me saying, let’s prepare for these moments because if you do, you might be surprised how well they can go and how brilliant you can be.

Isabel Berwick
And is it a one-size-fits-all on preparation, or do you have to take a step back?

Ros Atkins
I think that the process that I outline in the book is one size fits all because I’m not being prescriptive about every last detail. Essentially, I’m saying before you start doing this, stop and think about what you’re about to do. What do you want to achieve? What information do you want to pass on? Where are you gonna be doing this? And then I work through a number of steps where first you collect information, then you distil information because one of the first things we should do is get the information we want to pass on in the best form it can be to be passed on. And then once you’ve distilled the information, you can start organising it much more effectively. You can consider what language you want to use around it. And my experience is that if you go through this process, regardless of the subject, regardless of the situation that you’re in, it’s gonna put you in pretty good shape.

Isabel Berwick
So what’s the biggest mistake people make in day-to-day communication?

Ros Atkins
Quite often the mistake I see people making — and it’s a mistake coming from a good place, which is an enthusiasm to pass on, lots of interesting information — we sometimes are too ambitious, and I find this when I’m making videos, for example, we might have a whole range of interesting things to say on a given subject, but we have to make tough decisions and say, well, if we include this and this and this, there’s a risk that actually will disguise that the thing that really matters is this piece of information over here. So the very simple test that I always apply, is the information you’ve got essential to helping you achieve whatever the purpose of this piece of communication is? Or is it interesting or is it irrelevant? If it’s irrelevant, obviously we get rid of it. If it’s interesting, ask yourself some tough questions about whether it needs to stay and really focus on the essential information and ask yourself to achieve the purpose of this communication, whatever it might be, big or small, what’s the information people have to have? And if you prioritise that information and give that information, the VIP treatment above all else, in my experience, that gives you a good chance of that information being communicated effectively.

Isabel Berwick
Mm-hmm. Do you use these tips when you’re doing pay negotiations and stuff as well?

Ros Atkins
I use them in every aspect of my life, pretty much. I can’t remember the exact preparations for the last time I talked to the BBC about pay, but I use it going into almost every meeting that I have inside the BBC and outside the BBC. So I would imagine that I did. Because, you know, if you talk to some of my closest colleagues, like the brilliant producers who make videos, they’ll often see me grabbing a bit of paper ahead of going to a meeting that has just been called quickly. And I always grab a piece of paper because even if I’ve only got 30 seconds or a minute, I will try and quickly stop and think, OK, who’s gonna be in this meeting? What is it that I would like to get across? What is it they might want from me? How can I help them get that? And what is it that we’re all hoping to decide to do? And if you can be conscious of that, the way those conversations go, you can’t guarantee an outcome, but you can give yourself the best chance of having passed on the information you think matters of trying to get the information you would like in return, and of making sure at least the people you’re speaking to know what you would like to happen and why. Then of course it’s up to them whether they want to do that or not. So I do it all the time. I would do it if I go to the doctor’s. For better or for worse, Isabel, I pretty much do practice what I preach in the book.

Isabel Berwick
I just wanted to cover emails, which you do brilliantly.

Ros Atkins
Thank you.

Isabel Berwick
We get hundreds . . . I think the average worker sends 140-something emails. I mean, you probably get thousands. How should we phrase our emails to make sure they get read?

Ros Atkins
Well, it’s tough. First of all, it’s very tough. And I’ll come back to the point we made at the beginning, which is that we are in an exceedingly competitive information environment. I would say email is right at the sharp end of that. And, you know, I’m not ashamed to admit I am passionate about email and passionate about messaging, not because I love the form, but because I know if you can get them right, the outcomes can be very exciting. Equally, if you don’t get them right, then things that might have happened don’t. And so I’ve spent a long time thinking about how to write emails. I think the couple of things that I would emphasise of this, you’ve got to start from a position of extreme pessimism. You need to start from the position that the chance of someone reading this email is really quite low and if they start reading it, the chance of them reading all of it is really quite low. And if you’re expecting them to read it diligently, sentence after sentence rather than skim, you’re gonna be disappointed. And rather than railing against the world and railing against the fact that that’s how it is, I, quite a long time ago, reached the point of acceptance with email, which is that I need to give people the information they would like from me or I would like to give to them as ruthlessly, efficiently as possible to make their life easier. So I am, as you can probably tell, an enthusiast of well-written emails because even though they’re not the most exhilarating of communication medium, actually, if you can get them right, they can save time, they can make ideas happen, they can help you communicate much more effectively with a range of different people. If you do that, you stand out.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So much of what we do at work is about communication. And so much of that is done unthinkingly. You know, it’s just off the top of our heads. And so much of that in turn can have a really massive impact on our careers without us knowing it. So what I’ve learnt today from Ros is to prepare ruthlessly for anything — overprepare, in fact, which, by the way, is a point Pilita endorsed, too. A final word from her:

Pilita Clark
All the people who are really good at communicating clearly understand what they’re talking about completely. Where people get into trouble is when they don’t quite understand the topic completely. You can’t make something simple unless you understand all of its complications. So I think that, you know, that’s really the fundamental difference between people who can communicate clearly and people who can’t.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Isabel Berwick
So while you’re preparing to boil down your email or that presentation, take out every single unnecessary word, everything that is not communicating the message you need to communicate. And lastly, one important thing I took away from speaking to Ros: think about your audience. I think we all have a tendency to focus on ourselves, particularly if we’re giving a presentation. We get nervous. We put the spotlight on ourselves. Look the other way, look outwards towards the people you’re talking to. It’s about them, not about you. So this has been brilliant. And who knows? It may even improve the quality of this podcast.

With thanks to Ros Atkins and Pilita Clark for this episode. This episode of Working It was produced Misha Frankl-Duval and mixed by Simon Panayi. Manuela Saragosa is the executive editor and Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. Thanks for listening.

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