The Data and The Narrative

This week is Back to College at the Gokhale Institute. A podcast that I started a couple of years ago has become a tradition of sorts at the start of each semester at the BSc programme.

For about a week, we have people come and speak to us. All of them answer a simple question in a variety of ways. And that question is this: what would you do differently if you got the chance to go back to college? It’s a simple question, and can be answered in myriad ways. Here are some of the past talks, if you’re interested.

There’s one theme that has come up in all of the talks so far, and often enough for me to want to emphasize on it further. All of the speakers have spoken about the importance of doing the analysis, but also having the ability to build a story around it. Most folks are perhaps good at one, but not the other, and rarely both.

As an economist, almost all of the speakers have said, we have nowadays the ability to build models and run regressions. Building out a more sophisticated model, tweaking it, refining it, is either already possible, or can be learnt relatively easily. But where we lose out on, as young economists entering the workforce, is in our ability to explain what we’ve done.

I often say in my classes on statistics that the most underrated skill that a statistician possesses is the English language. I usually get confused laughter by way of response, but I am, of course, getting at much the same point. Unless you have the ability to explain what your model implies for the business problem at hand, you haven’t really done your work. And when I say explain, I mean using the English language.

Each of our speakers for the week so far have made the same point in their own way. Technical ability is table stakes. The differentiator is the ability to expand on what you’ve done, in a way that resonates with the listener. And resonance means the ability to tell a story about how what you’ve done is A Good Thing For The Business.

There are many other lessons to have come out of this week’s talks, and more, I’m sure, to come. But this is worth internalizing and working upon for all of us (myself included): it’s about the analysis and the narrative.

What Makes For a Good Communicator?

Sushmitha Kanukurthi, a good friend (and asker of difficult questions!) left this comment on last Friday’s post:

I wish you would elaborate on what it means to be a good communicator … how do you articulate effectively for e.g.?

Nice, easy, no-pressure question to tackle on a Friday morning! 🙂

But let’s go ahead and try and break it down:

  1. One way to think about communication – you have a structure of interlinked thoughts in your head, and you want to transfer it into someone else’s head.
  2. Before you begin this transfer, which is bloody hard, it would help to have your own structure as clearly constructed, and as simply constructed as possible.
  3. At the risk of being a little meta: I have thoughts about what makes a good communicator in my head, and I would like to transfer these thoughts into your head, via this post. This post thus becomes the transference mechanism.
  4. Writing this post is difficult enough. But boss, it would be a lot easier if I was clear in my own head about the topic! Also: being clear about it is different from being “right” about it. That’s a whole other topic, and we’re not getting into it today.
  5. So that’s the first requirement of being a good communicator: being clear in your own head about the topic at hand.
  6. Now, this is where the whole thing becomes tricky, and you’d do well to pay attention: over time, you realize that the best way to be clear in your own head about a topic is by writing it down.
    1. This is not me dispensing gyaan. This is me quoting other folks. I just happen to be in complete agreement.
    2. This is the quote: “The Arabs have an expression for trenchant prose: no skill to understand it, mastery to write it.”
    3. So if you’re asking how to be a better writer, it is about thinking clearly. If you’re asking how to think clearly, write. The bottomline: start writing.
  7. Don’t worry about whether it is badly written or not. Don’t worry about whether it makes sense or not. In fact, you’re guaranteed less than desirable quality the first few times.
  8. No, I’m not going to quantify the word “few”. It would be a very boring world if the answer were to be the same for all of us. But forget about quality, just write.
    It is like learning how to ride a bicycle. We all struggle the first (ahem) few times, and then it comes naturally. But we all have to stumble the first few times, now what to do.
  9. After the first few times, start to worry about “better”. And better is often about removing the bad parts from your essay, rather than trying to add the good stuff in. A sparse, elegant essay isn’t written at the first go. It is what is left at the end of ruthless editing. Write a first draft out, and force yourself to cut it down to 2/3 of the original length. What you’ll be left with will be good communication.
    And if you are the kind of person who is hard on yourself, find solace in this: it may not be good by your standards, but it will be better than the first draft.
  10. Writing is a form of teaching, and teaching forces you to be clear about stuff you are thinking about. Write, therefore with an audience in mind, and that audience is your student. Will your student have learnt for reading what you have written? If not, re-write. If yes, stop rewriting.
  11. Practice. Practice everyday. Everyday you get a little bit better. Have you ever experienced that feeling of surprise at the end of a long walk on the beach, when you glance back and see how far you’ve come? Your writing today won’t be much better than your writing yesterday, but your writing today will be much better than your writing was on the 11th of June, 2020.
    So long as you wrote everyday between that day and today, of course 🙂

That would be my answer to Sushmitha’s question. I wish (for my own sake) that I had an easier answer!

Does Language Matter?

When you’re appearing for an interview, how important (or not) is your grasp of the English language?

  1. It is a factor, but it shouldn’t be the only one. I have worked with colleagues while in the analytics industry who couldn’t speak English very well – but their knowledge of their domains was far better than mine would ever be.
    Being insanely good at your core skill set is more important then being good in English. Being insanely good at English is not as important as being good at your core skill.
    But that being said, being 8/10 in both is best of all.
  2. Being good at communicating well is different from being good at English, and many people do not appreciate the difference. Here’s the non-negotiable bit: you should be able to explain yourself clearly and concisely. Given the world that we live in, it is best if you can do it in English. But no matter what language, clarity of thought and expression is table stakes.
  3. In an interview, my recommendation to candidates is that they state up front that they are not as conversant in English as they are in x/y/z language. And to state that they’re trying to get better at it, but it is an ongoing process. Think of it this way: if they are going to reject you for not being good at English, how does it matter whether you tell them or not? And if they aren’t going to reject you for your English, your candor and honesty is a plus for you.
  4. But to go back to pt. 1, being good at your core skill becomes even more important. For example, if you are applying for a job in the analytics industry, your knowledge of statistics and econometrics must be beyond reproach. Your knowledge of R or Excel or whatever must be beyond reproach.
  5. If you want to get better at English, I have three suggestions for you:
    1. Translate English reports (try the executive summary of a World Bank publication, if you want me to give you something to get started with) into whichever language you are comfortable with. You learn how to write professional English through this exercise (if only indirectly), and you add a line to your resume. There is no downside!
    2. Read this essay, not more than one paragraph on any given day. Read that paragraph thrice in one day, but never more than a paragraph a day. Don’t worry about how long it takes, but savor each sentence. Only try translating it once you’ve read the entire essay at least thrice. Your English will improve, but so also will your thinking and your writing, regardless of which language you end up using. Again, there is no downside.
    3. Force yourself to write ELI5 summaries of topics from your core skill. For example, explain what the Gaussian distribution is, and why it matters, to a 5 year old using simple English. Absolutely no downside!
  6. Bottomline: when the corporate world is telling you that it wants you to be good at English, it is really saying two things. First, it wants you to be a good communicator. Second, it wants you to be reasonably good at the English language. Trust me, the requirements are in that order. Trust me on this too: I know a lot of folks who are good at the second bit, but not so much at the former. (Hell, I’d put myself in this category).
  7. Bottom bottom line: practice becoming better at communicating clearly. That is much more important.

Etc: Links for 19th July, 2019

  1. “Almost half of all U.S. rice comes from Arkansas. When a rice farmer who was also a state legislator bought some and tasted it, he decided the label had to be banned. So, during March, Arkansas legislators prohibited the cauliflower rice name from all food labels in the state. Saying that the word rice has to refer to actual rice, the law included a $1000 fine for a “mislabeled” product.”
    What’s in a name? A rice by any other name, it turns out (forgive the pun), ain’t quite the same thing, legally speaking.
  2. ““By lowering the barrier to initiate communication, the hidden side effect is that Slack has the quiet capacity to exponentially increase communication overhead. Resulting in much more voluminous, lower quality communication.”In other words, talk is cheap and we’re spending like crazy.”
    The problem with all these awesome tools that help us communicate better is that they help us communicate better. Folks with GIPE id’s… tried out Hangout Chat on your phone just yet?
  3. “I kind of have a perfectionist type of mentality. Things kind of irritate me and get more and more irritating over time and it was just really confirmed to me that I couldn’t make it better. So I threw out this problem to the group: “Wouldn’t it be great if customers just gave us a chunk of change at the beginning of the year and we calculated zero for their shipping charges the rest of that year?””
    The most popular form of the sunk cost fallacy in the world: it’s origins explained. If you’re confused about how this is about the sunk cost fallacy, ask yourself this: how often have you checked the Flipkart app after you became a Prime member?
  4. “Influencers won’t receive a cut of the sales their posts generate. They will, however, have access to a shared analytics dashboard with robust metrics that the tagged brand can also see. Previously, influencers relied on screenshots and other imperfect methods to communicate engagement numbers with brands, so tying their influence directly to sales was nearly impossible. Having a more streamlined framework and detailed analytics will be incredibly valuable for influencers. “It gives you more leverage when you’re negotiating rates,” says Aimee Song, a fashion influencer.”
    The evolving economics of Instagram influencers. What do you think will happen next?
  5. “In his time around Italy, especially in Venice, Ghosh was struck by the fact that the language he heard the most after Italian, is Bengali. He explains, “The people who literally keep Venice going are Bengalis. They are the ones making the pizzas, the hotel beds. They play the accordion even. Bengalis have absolutely become the working class. It is such a striking thing that people don’t seem to notice. The tourists don’t notice. Even the Indians who go there, don’t seem to notice. Venice is like a gigantic stage set. So people only notice the setting. They don’t notice who keeps it going; it is literally the Bengalis.””
    Just in case you have not read any of Amitav Ghosh’s works, this might get you interested in them. If you are looking for a good place to start, I’d suggest The Hungry Tide.

Links for 20th March, 2019

  1. “In 1950, cement production was equal to that of steel; in the years since, it has increased 25-fold, more than three times as fast as its metallic construction partner.”
    A mostly negative view of concrete, and how pervasive it has become over the years and across the world, in the Guardian. I wouldn’t necessarily argue the view that concrete is all bad, but the data is worth thinking about. Also keep an eye out for a mention of Vaclav Smil later on in the article – an author worth reading.
  2. “Achieving victory over another man, defeating them, forcing them to submit—it’s not about saying “I’m better than you.” It’s saying “I’m better than I was yesterday.” It’s why almost every competition ends with a hug and a thank you. Because each gave the other something—the opportunity to learn, to progress and to become better. At “Camp Settle This Like Men,” and at MMA gyms around the world, black belt instructors lend their time and expertise to lead classes on kickboxing, jiu jitsu, boxing and self-defense. When we teach others our skills, we make them better, hone our own knowledge, and create stronger opponents, that we can measure ourselves against.”
    An article from the Quillette about “Camp Settle This Like Men”. Interesting on multiple levels – masculine toxicity, respect (the earning and the giving of it), and about the plus side of mixed martial arts.
  3. “You have no idea how hard it is. Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes into getting the teams aligned and getting the right leaders in place who believe in these priorities, and being able to execute on that. And even the process of writing something like this is really helpful, because you can talk about a lot of things in the abstract. But it’s not until you actually put it down on paper and say, “Yeah, here are the trade-offs. We’re going to focus on reducing the permanence of how much data we have around, and that’s going to make these things harder.” Then you get all these teams inside the company that come out of the woodwork with all the issues that that’s going to cause for other things that we really care about.”
    Maybe it is because I was teaching industrial organization this semester – but rather than everything else that everybody focused upon, this is the part of the interview that leaped out for me. Organizing a firm is hard. Organizing teams within a firm is harder. There’s a very long reading list that suggests itself about this – it begins from Coase, and ends at Horowitz – for now.
  4. “Today, we’re celebrating the objects and ideas dreamt up and created by inventors, scientists and dreamers. Thanks to over 110 institutions, including National Council of Science Museums and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research from India, as well as dedicated curators and archivists from 23 countries around the world, you can explore a millennia of human progress in Once Upon a Try, now available on Google Arts & Culture. With over 400 interactive collections, it’s the largest online exhibition about inventions, discoveries, and innovations ever created.”
    What a time to be alive. I haven’t seen a lot on the site, principally because I would get nothing else done – but this is a truly bookmark-able resource. Again, what a time to be alive.
  5. “In India, in my opinion, we ape the West too much, particularly America too much. I lived in Silicon Valley so I know both the strengths and the weaknesses. The weaknesses, the short-termist thinking. Very few companies stay the long haul and we have taken more inspiration from the Japanese on these than from the Americans, in this particular area.”
    Lots and lots of interesting stuff here, and the whole interview is worth listening/reading. But of all of those things, this was the most interesting one to me – the influence of Japanese and American start-up culture on Zoho – a remarkable Indian firm.