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!

Forecasting The Future

All forecasting models are fun to learn about, and to tinker with in your software of choice. But it is equally true that all forecasting models are problematic.

First, they’re based on the assumption that the future will look like the past. Eventually, that will not be the case – this is a guarantee.

Second, even if they are based on the past, there is the problem of survivorship bias to consider in your sample of choice (my thanks to Aadisht for helping me realize this better).

And third, your predictions cannot – I repeat, cannot – account for all the underlying complexities. Forecasting is a ridiculously risky thing to do, and kudos to those who try, for this very reason.

I’d done a round-up of posts I had read in January 2020 (remember January 2020? Those were the days) that tried to predict what the world would look like when it came to India, technology and the world. I bring this up to re-emphasize the point I was trying to make in the previous paragraph: no matter how sophisticated your model, no matter how careful your sampling, and no matter however many dots you connect: reality will always have you beat.

That’s just how it is. Forecasting models work well until they don’t, and that one time they don’t can often be more costly than all the times they did.


And that brings me to this tweet:


What should you take away from this tweet (and the rest of the thread)?

My primary audience when I write here is, in a sense, myself back when I was an undergrad/post-grad student. So what advice would I want to give to myself after having read that Twitter thread?

  1. As Nitin Pai himself goes on to say in a subsequent tweet, this is a useful principle to have: Don’t try to predict the future.
  2. Respect skin in the game. Did he get it wrong? Sure he did. But hey, it takes courage to put your reasoning, your thoughts and your conclusions in the public domain. Feel free to disagree with the conclusions, but accord people who write in public the respect they deserve for having done so.
  3. Have the courage to admit you were wrong. We have two examples in front of us. One is the usual “I was misquoted/misunderstood” weasel talk. The other is an admission of error, straight up, and without qualifiers. Like the tweet above.
  4. Work at getting better. A publicly available record of your thoughts is invaluable, because it forces you to write after thinking carefully. It is also invaluable because you can outsource the “where can I get better” to the internet. And there are enough (trust me) people on the internet who will enthusiastically point out where you’re wrong. Use that advice constructively. By that I mean this, specifically: continue to write in the public domain, and that will mean making mistakes. Try not to make the same ones twice.

Like Nitin, I have written about what we’ve been going through, and how we might get out of it. All of it is available here on this blog. Some of it might turn out to be wrong – in fact, there’s a guarantee that if I write enough, some of it will be wrong. And given the pandemic that we’re going through, the stakes are impossibly high.

But it is the process of writing in public, and giving feedback on what other people write in public that drives our thinking forward.

So again, if you’re a student reading this: write. Write in the public domain. Make mistakes. Develop a thick enough skin to take on the criticism. Learn the (almost impossible to acquire) skill of figuring out when you’re wrong, and develop and hone the courage it takes to admit it.

And then, write again.


(Quick note: posting will be sporadic for some time.)

Write!

In my Utopian world, there would be a mandatory qualification to appear for job interviews in college.

You should have been writing at least thrice a week since you got into college. Minimum. This writing should be freely accessible online. Without this writing, you don’t get to sit for job interviews.

What, you might ask, should you be writing about?

Here’s one way to think about it: what are you most curious about? What broad subject, topic or concept do you wish to learn about the most? Write about that. Then write about the an aspect, a nuance, an offshoot that you thought about while writing that first post. Trust me, there is no way for you to write about something – anything – without having thought about something else to write about. I guarantee it.

And continue writing. As I said, at least thrice a week.

Writing often happens in bunches. By that I mean that it is possible that you will write three posts all in one day, and then not write for a week. That’s fine – in fact, that’s great. At the end of the month, you should have 12 posts up, at a minimum.

If you have questions about the length of the post, which blogging service to use, which template to use for your blog – and other questions of this nature, you are procrastinating. And that’s fine too. Nobody procrastinates better than me. But at some point of time you’ll have to acknowledge to yourself that you are procrastinating – and as Seth Godin puts it, you’ll have to start shipping.

Does it have to be in English, you ask? Dear god, no. Any language will do. It just has to be thrice a week.

Your first few posts will be horrible. They will be long drawn, rambling posts that show confused thinking, an unclear grasp of concepts and a hesitancy to call a spade a spade. That’s fine. It’s like the first few weeks at the gym. You can’t help but stare in wonder at the regulars and the effortless ease with which they get through their gym routine.

But just like in the case of going to the gym, stick at it long enough, and things will start to get better.

Your sentences will get shorter. Your grasp of concepts will become clearer. How could it not? Once you realize, through your writing, what you do not know, you can’t help but want to change the status quo.

And once you are sure footed in terms of a grasp on the concepts, you will begin to call a spade a spade too.

The bad news? All this doesn’t happen without showing up regularly.

The good news? Stick to it, and you have a body of work that allow you to sail through your interview.

Write.

Please, write.

Etc: Links for 16th August, 2019

I have linked to brainpickings before, but this week, I have been reading it almost incessantly. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I have economics textbooks coming out of my ears.

In particular, I have been reading about what Maria Popova has to say about Kurt Vonnegut – and that is a heady combination indeed. And so today’s links are five posts about Vonnegut by Popova (and a bonus sixth one at the end!)

  1. “I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.”
    An excerpt from a letter to his daughter.
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  2. “When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten.”
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    A part of his daily routine, as outlined to his wife.
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  3. “I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.”
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    Hamlet from his viewpoint.
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  4. “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
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    This was the second piece that I read this week about Vonnegut, and the advice about how to write better is masterful.
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  5. “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.”
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    And this was the first.

And because it is Friday, and because why not, a short poem by Vonnegut.

Tech: Links for 13th July, 2019

Five articles by Michael Nielsen. If you aren’t familiar with Michael Nielsen, this is a great place to start!

  1. His version of how to write better.
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  2. A scientist’s explanation of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.
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  3. May this come true, and right soon.
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  4. “In the US House of Representatives, 61 percent of Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act, while a much higher percentage, 80 percent, of Republicans voted for the Act. You might think that we could conclude from this that being Republican, rather than Democrat, was an important factor in causing someone to vote for the Civil Rights Act. However, the picture changes if we include an additional factor in the analysis, namely, whether a legislator came from a Northern or Southern state. If we include that extra factor, the situation completely reverses, in both the North and the South. Here’s how it breaks down:North: Democrat (94 percent), Republican (85 percent)

    South: Democrat (7 percent), Republican (0 percent)

    Yes, you read that right: in both the North and the South, a larger fraction of Democrats than Republicans voted for the Act, despite the fact that overall a larger fraction of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act.”
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    One of my favorite problems from statistics: Simpson’s Paradox. And an old frenemy: correlation is not causation.
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  5. Memory, and how to get better at it.

Links for 31st May, 2019

  1. “For economists, the idea of “spending” time isn’t a metaphor. You can spend any resource, not just money. Among all the inequalities in our world, it remains true that every person is allocated precisely the same 24 hours in each day. In “Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time,” the Knowledge@Wharton website interviews Daniel Hamermesh, focusing on themes from his just-published book Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource.”
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    Almost a cliche, but oh-so-true. The one non-renewable resource is time. A nice read, the entire set of excerpts within this link.
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  2. ““Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?”
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    As the first comment below the fold says, she herself doesn’t follow her own advice all the time (and yes, that is putting it mildly), but the book that Diane Coyle reviews in this article is always worth your time. Multiple re-readings, in fact. Also, I am pretty good at writing bad prose myself, which is why I like reading this book so much.
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  3. “Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.”
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    I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the author of this essay should read the book reviewed above first – but if you aren’t familiar with falsification, you might want to begin by reading this essay.
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  4. “Upheaval, by Jared Diamond. I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.”
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    Bill Gates has this annual tradition of  recommending five books for the summer – and I haven’t read a single one of the five he has recommended this year. All of them seem interesting – Diamond’s book perhaps more so than others.
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  5. “Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.”
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    To say that I am fascinated by this topic is an understatement – and I have a very real, very powerful personal incentive to read this especially attentively. That being said, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to learn about how we learn, and why we learn so poorly.

Links for 8th April, 2019

  1. “The message of the chart, after all, is the same in both versions. But the takeaway is important: if two series follow each other too closely, it is probably a good idea to have a closer look at the scales.”
    A lovely, lovely read on how even The Economist (gasp!) sometimes gets visualizations wrong. But jokes aside, it is a lovely read on how difficult data visualization is.
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  2. “What I am angry about is our underinvestment in figuring out how to better treat mental health problems. Even with all of the other suffering there is in the world, I believe that suffering from mental health problems is a large part of human suffering. Without referencing his own suffering, Alan did a lot to advance the recognition of the importance of mental health problems—and more broadly, the importance of everything that contributes to a good life—with his research on subjective well-being.”
    Miles Kimball, who was a peer of Alan Krueger’s at Harvard, writes a lovely essay about him, and more besides. Entirely worth a read.
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  3. “Grief is a gift, wrapped in the worst possible package. It shows you who you are, and teaches you lessons you would never have learned otherwise. Your compassion for others is magnified. Your understanding of what motivates people sharpens. You are grateful for small wonders and embrace happy moments as never before, because you know—you are absolutely clear about this—that you must celebrate when you can and while you can. Grief has taught you not to take these moments for granted. You become an open invitation for wonder.”
    I rarely do this, but on this one occasion, it makes sense. From within the essay in 2. above, this essay by Miles Kimball’s wife, Gail. Please make the time to to read it.
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  4. “While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.”
    Suggestive or not, accurate or not – it certainly makes for fascinating reading. The chart alone is worth the click. An article about whether there may be a common ancestry to symbols found the world over.
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  5. “Indian fiscal federalism is at a crossroads. The question of how money is to be shared between New Delhi and the states on one hand, and among different states on the other, will continue to resonate. There is a lot of talk about the importance of federalism as well as calls for greater centralization. Decentralization is needed because India is too complex a country to have a uniform approach to development. Centralization is necessary because of the risk that important national public goods, including regional equality, could be underfunded. These tricky questions of federal balance need an institutional mechanism that entails either a more effective NITI Aayog or a permanent Finance Commission.”
    Niranjan Rajadhakshya weighs in on what should replace the NITI Aayog and the Planning Commission,