When I was a student, a man came to speak about Winston Churchill. Mostly, it was the usual mix of historical events and anecdotes, which in Churchill’s case was a potent mixture of the poignant, the irreverent and the hilarious. But what I remember most was how the talk ended.
The speaker concluded by saying that if we were to remember one thing about Churchill it should be that what made him so effective was his power to communicate. I didn’t understand that at the time. Growing up I had always heard about the importance of hard work, honesty and other things, but never communication.
Yet now, thirty years later, I’ve begun to understand what he meant. As Walter Isaacson argues in his book The Innovators, even in technology—maybe especially in technology—the ability to collaborate effectively is decisive. In order to innovate, it’s not enough to just come up with big ideas, you also need to work hard to communicate them clearly.
The Father Of The Electronic Age
Today, we take electricity for granted. We switch on lights, watch TV and enjoy connected devices without a second thought. It’s hard to imagine an earlier age in which we had to use smoky, smelly candles in order to see at night and didn’t have the benefit and convenience of basic household appliances.
Michael Faraday, probably more than anyone else, transformed electricity from an interesting curiosity into the workhorse of the modern age. Not only did he uncover many of its basic principles, such as its relationship to magnetism, but also invented crucial technologies, like the dynamo that generates electricity and the motor which turns it into meaningful work.
Yet Faraday was more than just a talented scientist. He was also a very effective communicator. As Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon write in their book, Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field, “His scientific genius lay not simply in producing experimental results that had eluded everyone else but in explaining them too.”
This wasn’t a natural talent, he worked hard at it, taking copious notes on his own lectures and those of others. The effort paid off. His regular lectures at the Royal Institution made him, and the Institution itself, a fixture in the scientific world. The special Christmas lectures for children, which he instituted, continue to this day and draw a large television audience.
The Magician Who Shared His Tricks
A more recent genius was Richard Feynman. He won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, but also made important discoveries in biology and was an early pioneer of parallel and quantum computing. His talent, in fact, was so prodigious that even other elite scientists considered him to be a magician.
Yet like Faraday, Feynman was not content to hide his tricks behind smoke and mirrors. He taught an introductory class for undergraduates—exceedingly rare for top calibre academics—that was standing room only. With his Brooklyn accent, wry sense of humor and talent for explaining things in practical, everyday terms, he was a student favorite.
Another example of how Feynman combined brilliance with exceptional communication skills was a talk he gave a few days after Christmas in 1959. Starting from a basic question about what it would take to shrink the Encyclopedia Britannica to fit on the head of a pin, he moved step by step until, in less than an hour, he had invented the field of nanotechnology.
Schopenhauer once said that, “talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.” What made Feynman so special was that he wanted us to see it too.
“THESE ADS SUCK”
We often treat communication as if it were a discrete act, a matter of performance or lack thereof. Yet meaning cannot be separated from context. A crucial, but often overlooked, function of leadership is creating a culture in which effective communication can flourish.
Consider the case of Google, which I described in Harvard Business Review. In early 2002, Larry Page walked into the the kitchen and posted a few pages of search results and wrote in big, bold letters, “THESE ADS SUCK.” In many organizations, this act would be considered a harsh taking down of an incompetent product manager.
But not at Google. It was seen as a call to action and within 72 hours a team of search engineers posted a solution. As it turned out, it was they, not the ads team, that had the requisite skills and perspectives to fix the problem. In many ways, it was that episode that made Google the profit machine it is today.
Yet Page’s action was vastly greater than a single act. He and Sergey Brin spent years creating a culture that favored change over the status quo. When he posted the subpar search results, everybody knew why. He wasn’t looking to attack—no one was fired or disciplined—but inspire.
Communication is bidirectional, requiring both a transmitter and a receiver. Both need to effectively engineered in order to solve problems effectively.
The Myth Of A Private Language
We tend to treat knowledge and communication as two separate spheres. We act as expertise was a private matter, attained through quiet study of the lexicon in a particular field. Communication, on the other hand, is often relegated to the realm of the social, a tool we use to interact with others of our species.
Yet, as Wittgenstein argued decades ago, that position is logically untenable because it assumes that we are able to communicate to ourselves in a private language. The truth is that we can’t really know anything that we can’t communicate to others. To assert that we can possess knowledge, but are unable to designate what it is, is nonsensical.
And so it is curious that we give communication such short shrift. Schools don’t teach communication. They teach math, (not very well), some science, history and give rote instructions about rigid grammatical rules, but give very little guidance on how to express ideas clearly.
When we enter professional life, we immerse ourselves in the jargon and principles of our chosen field and obediently follow precepts laid out by our respective priesthoods. Yet we rarely put serious effort toward expressing ourselves in a language that can be understood by those outside our tribe. Then we wonder why our ideas never get very far.
It has become fashionable to say that our present epoch is an information age, but that’s not quite right. In truth, we live in a communication age and it’s time we start taking it seriously.
image credit: John Ragai
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