Author Talks: Am I making myself clear?

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Ros Atkins, BBC journalist and host of the BBC Explainer series Ros Atkins On…, about his new book, The Art of Explanation: How to Communicate with Clarity and Confidence (Wildfire, September 2023). Atkins shares how you can harness the power of communication to improve your interactions, build trust, and create meaningful outcomes. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why write a book on explaining well now?

In the last two or three years, the explainer videos that I make with my BBC News colleagues have been shared far more than I ever would’ve hoped they would be. Quite a few people have approached me, whether other organizations, colleagues, or people who watched them and have asked, “Well, how do you do that? How do you take on these complex subjects and distill them down in a way that doesn’t lose the nuance within the subjects, but does manage to give people the information in a clear way, but also in a focused and relatively brief way?”

Of course, I am very flattered to be asked. Over the last 25, 30 years, I’ve been working with a system that I first started using at university. I began using it to help me first decide what I’m trying to communicate, gather helpful information, and then organize and link that information to give it the best chance of being understood and of reaching the people I hope to reach.

As I was describing that system to people who were asking about our videos, I could tell that they were interested. That’s how we’ve ended up with The Art of Explanation.

Tell us about your starting point for thinking more systematically about how you communicate.

The starting point for this process was at the beginning of my time as an undergraduate studying history. Each week, I was faced with formidable subjects about which I knew little. Within a week, I had to consume a huge amount of information, distill it, and construct arguments in what I hoped would be a coherent fashion. I was using the system in the context of studying history, not really thinking much more beyond it.

Toward the end of my time at university, I had a girlfriend who had family in Johannesburg. After we finished university, we ended up living there. I worked as a policy researcher, and I also volunteered for a newspaper called The Sunday Independent. At the time, it was owned by the same media group that owned The Independent titles back in the UK. When I moved back to the UK, the then-editor of The Sunday Independent kindly gave me a letter of reference to share with his colleagues.

In the summer of 1998, I was unemployed, and I sent that letter to The Independent. I was invited to come in for a conversation. Even though I really wanted that job, really wanted to be a news journalist, and absolutely loved The Independent, I hadn’t worked out a plan for that moment in the room.

Within moments of starting the conversation, I realized it was not coming together. I hadn’t worked out the information I wanted to share or the questions I wanted to ask. They were very nice about it, but the opportunity passed. I never got a job at The Independent. At the time, it really stung because I was low on confidence and cash. I didn’t have another job, and that was my ideal job. In the aftermath, I thought, “Well, what’s gone wrong here? Why did I not manage to translate my enthusiasm and my knowledge of the news into something that hung together when I was in that meeting?”

That’s when that moment connected with how I was trying to navigate my degree a few years earlier. I thought, “Perhaps this is the same system of working out what am I trying to say? What information do I need to use to do that? How do I want to shape that information? Who’s the information for? And in what environment is the information being passed on?”

I started applying these questions that I had thought about in another context to lots of other contexts, including job interviews. A couple of years later, when I had another interview, I had learned my lessons from earlier years. I interviewed not just committed to it, but also with a much more detailed plan for what to say and how to apply it to the job requirements of the position I sought. Happily, I got that job as a junior producer at BBC. It was quite a long time ago now, 2001, and I’m still at BBC years later.

You say, To explain is to first understand.

When I feel myself not communicating as clearly as I would like to, not using precise language, with a single person, a group of people, or an audience on TV, generally, it means that I haven’t understood two things completely.

“What specifically am I trying to communicate?” and “Have I properly understood the details of that subject and how I’m going to express myself on them?”

I’m now acutely tuned into this. For example, last year when Boris Johnson was under a lot of political pressure when he was then prime minister, I was on Downing Street doing lots of live reporting on BBC Television. I would think about the different aspects of that story, and I would make sure that I was tuned in to any aspect that I didn’t understand. I would think, “Actually, I guess I could talk about that, but I don’t think I could talk about it with precision and confidence.”

Once I’ve identified the discomfort, then I will dig down into the subject. I won’t just find the information that helps me understand it better. I’ll also think about, “How can I translate that information into phrases and sentences and explanations that really feel contained, clear, and devoid of distraction?”

All of those things flow from initially understanding the subject. Before you launch into an explanation, whether it’s going to the doctor to talk about some symptoms you’re experiencing, into a meeting at work where you’re trying to make the case for funding for a project or an idea, or on the TV—as in my case, trying to explain a prime minister under political pressure—you can glean unfamiliar subjects. If you can spot the elements of those subjects that you’re not comfortable with, get the information to help you, and then do the preparation to make sure you can express that information clearly, you understand the subject, and you can then explain it. The two things go hand in hand.

Why is asking ‘does it sound like me?’ so important?

“Does this sound like me?” is one of the most important questions I ask myself all the time when I’m working on how I communicate and how I explain. Let me explain why. Whether we communicate or not is in some way related to whether the people we’re communicating with trust us, whether they see us as a credible source of the information we’re sharing.

Arguably, part of being credible is being authentic. If the people you’re addressing in the workplace feel that perhaps you are not being who you are, or you’re trying to be something beyond what feels natural, they’ll pick up on that.

They’ll think, “Hmm. What’s going on here?” It may affect how they view the information you’re passing on. It may affect how they view you. If you can speak confidently and with precision and efficiency, but it feels like it’s you, then you’re going to be a much more credible and trustworthy source. In the end, authenticity is something people welcome. When I’ve worked on my scripts, whether for TV or radio, I’ve used this approach for years.

When I was writing the book as well, I thought, “Would I actually say this?” If I wouldn’t actually say it in real life, I apply a strict rule: it always has to change. I am ruthless about making sure, whether it’s written communication, like a book or an email, something more formal—like a news script, article, or work briefing—or a talk I give, that the words I’m using feel authentic to me.

What we want to avoid is putting pressure on ourselves to be something different in order to be successful or to communicate, because the most effective communicators are authentic ones. One of the best ways of being authentic is just to stop before you begin any form of communication, written or verbal, and say, ‘Would I actually talk like this?’

This doesn’t mean you have to be exactly the same in every circumstance. All of us calibrate how we speak according to the circumstance. If you were at a dinner party with friends, you would use a different tone, and perhaps slightly different language, than if you were in a formal work meeting or meeting a client for the first time. That wouldn’t be inauthentic; that would just be you calibrating how you speak, the language you use, and the information you share according to who you’re talking to.

What we want to avoid is putting pressure on ourselves to be something different in order to be successful or to communicate, because the most effective communicators are authentic ones. One of the best ways of being authentic is just to stop before you begin any form of communication, written or verbal, and say, “Would I actually talk like this?” And if you would, you’re in a good place.

Can you explain why everyone should have a ‘hands plan’?

People often laugh at me when I tell them, “It’s a good idea to have a hands plan.” When we’re communicating, we’re essentially deciding that we have information we want to share with a person, business, or group of people.

There are certain pieces of information that matter the most. These are things that we really want to get across. Whatever it might be, these are the general purposes of communicating, in the workplace, specifically. Often, we inadvertently place distractions around essential information. There is additional information we don’t really need to include, or very long sentences full of words we don’t really need to say.

Those are written distractions that come in the form of words, whether you’re speaking them aloud or writing them. But there can be physical distractions as well. If I were swaying constantly as I talked to you, you’d be thinking, “Why’s he swaying?” rather than thinking about what I was saying to you.

Hands can be a distraction, too. I’m sure you can think of times when you’ve been watching a presentation and you end up wondering, “What are they doing with their hands?” Often the presenters’ hands are moving without any great connection to what’s being said. When I say, “Have a hands plan,” that means it’s good to decide what to do with them. For example, if I’m on live TV and I’m reporting from, say, a summit, you can’t see my waist, so I can put my left hand in my pocket. No one will see that, and it keeps it out of the way, stopping it potentially from being a distraction. Let’s imagine I’m emphasizing three policies that a government at the summit has announced. I might say, “There’s this policy, that policy, and the other policy.” My right hand can support what I’m saying. Generally, we want to think about where our hands are going to go.

Often, we inadvertently place distractions around essential information. There is additional information we don’t really need to include, or very long sentences full of words we don’t really need to say.

Another example would be I’m talking to you now, and I am thinking, “Okay, I’m going to put my left hand on my left thigh. It’s just going to sit there for the whole time I’m speaking with you. But I might use my right hand from time to time to make a point or two.”

It’s not so much about a definitive, correct thing to do. It’s more about making sure that your hands don’t become a distraction. If they do, just like with other types of communication distractions, the moment your hands start distracting, the people you’re talking to will not be giving their full attention to the essential information you’re trying to convey.

Why should we practice ‘predictive’ questions?

When we’re trying to communicate in what I call “dynamic situations,” it can feel like you’re much less in control than, say, writing an email or doing a PowerPoint presentation. Those could be any interactions with others where we don’t know what to expect, whether that is a meeting, conference panel, or a job interview.

Of course, when we’re interacting with other people, we can’t be sure what they’re going to ask us. We can’t be sure how they’ll react or what they’ll say. That can feel less controlled because it is. In those situations, it’s possible to conclude, “Well, there’s just no way I could communicate with the same level of precision, the same level of accuracy, efficiency, and impact as I could do in a controlled situation.”

One of the things that I hope I’ve managed to get across in The Art of Explanation is that, actually, there are lots of things you can do to make those situations more controlled than you think. That is a great example of a situation where we can help ourselves. If I’m going into a job interview where, if I’m live on TV, I don’t know what questions I’m going to be asked, I could stop and ask myself a few things.

“If I were the person asking the questions of me, what would I ask? What would be the things that I would want to know?” I’ll make a list. Then I think, “Okay, if I was the one asking the questions, but I was really not in a great mood, or I was in the mood to make things difficult, what would the questions be then?”

Then I would also think, “What would be an unlikely question, something that probably won’t come up but could come up?” Then I’ll make another list. Finally, if I was going the extra mile, I could think, “I wonder if this person has spoken about this subject before.”

Maybe you’ve heard them in a meeting elsewhere at work, or maybe there’s something on YouTube of them on a conference panel. You might be able to find people—the people who are going to be asking you the questions—talking about the subject you’ll be discussing.

You might notice they have a pattern: they’re particularly preoccupied with an aspect of that subject. Before you know it, you’ve got quite a comprehensive list of questions that may arise. Then you can work through, “Well, if it does come up, how am I going to answer that? What information do I want? How would I organize that information? What phrases would I use? How would I weave the language of the questions into the information that I want to pass on?”

Before you know it, you might have 20 answers to those questions you think are most likely prepared. By the time the actual questions come around, you’ll have anticipated some. Of course, there will be others you didn’t expect, and there are techniques you can use for that.

When you’re in those dynamic situations, you can anticipate some of what will be coming your way, and you can prepare for those moments. It doesn’t remove all uncertainty, but it gives you more than you might think.

You ask us to think of writing emails and the notion of an ‘unkind tax.’

I confess, when I was writing the book and approaching the end, I’d always imagined that the final section was going to be about short, written communication, such as emails and messages of different types. I thought, “Goodness. Am I really going to finish my first book with a chapter about email? This doesn’t make me look like the most exciting guy, that I would spend so much time thinking about it.”

But I actually thought, “Yes, I am going to do this, because I’m passionate about email, passionate about short, written communication.” My decision was not because it’s the most exhilarating of mediums, but because, actually, all of us, in different ways, are surrounded by short, digital, written communication.

It’s a huge part of all of our lives, and if we can communicate effectively in that medium, it can have an enormous effect. If we don’t, it can mean a lot of opportunities pass by. So there is a section on email, and there are a number of assumptions that I make about email. I think before we even get into it, we need to assess the environment in which we’re operating. It’s a competitive one, so I always start with the assumption that it’s not guaranteed someone will read an email. So I want to try to encourage them to open it up. It’s not guaranteed that if they open it, they’ll get to the end. So I want to make sure the most important information is near the top.

I need to accept that lots of people don’t read emails entirely. We skim them. Formatting is hugely important. How can we distill the most important information and make it as consumable as possible for the person that we’re passing it on to? If you do this well, people really appreciate it, which brings us to that phrase, “unkind tax.” It’s the phrase of Professor Todd Rogers, an incredible academic at Harvard University, who has spent many years studying how we consume short, written communication.

I always start with the assumption that it’s not guaranteed someone will read an email. So I want to try to encourage them to open it up. It’s not guaranteed that if they open it, they’ll get to the end. So I want to make sure the most important information is near the top.

He calls long emails an “unkind tax.” When I first read this, I thought, “What’s Todd Rogers getting at here?” It’s a vital point.

If you send an email that’s long, makes information hard to find, and takes a long time to consume, it’s not serving you well. The people you’re trying to communicate with are unlikely to get the information, request, or goal of the email. There’s a flip side to that.

You are actually asking them to do work you have not chosen to do. You’re making them spend ten minutes hunting up and down the email to find the information. Todd Rogers calls it an unkind tax because if we communicate—in written form, and particularly digital, written form—in a way that is not preparing the information for rapid consumption, we are putting work and time onto people who are very likely not to have that time.

You can also turn it around and be more positive. If you are communicating very effectively and efficiently in short, written, digital communication, people really appreciate it. They can still be really effective.

The other day, I saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that read, “This meeting could have been an email.” I love that, because sometimes we’ve all been in long meetings, and we think, “Actually, the information that’s been exchanged here could have been done in written form and could have been done much more quickly.”

This is a broader message about the book. Wherever you work, whatever your specialism, there are skills that are required to go with your trade that you will naturally think are worth investing in. You will think, “Of course I need to get going with that skill. Without it, I can’t pursue the career I’m in.” Perhaps we don’t stop and think, “Well, how do we communicate with each other? How do we shape the interactions of our working day, whether the big moments, like a job interview, or the day-to-day moments, like an email or a quick meeting?”

Perhaps we don’t think about that and develop techniques for that in the same way we might do with skills specific to our trade. Even though email is not obviously the most exciting subject in some ways, I am speaking to you now, have been lucky enough to work for BBC News, have managed to get my explainer videos posted, and have had many other opportunities. That would not have happened if I had not managed to explain my ambitions and my objectives in email, in written form. That’s the reason there’s a chapter on email.

Email has a huge potential as a communication form. Yet if you start sending long, unfocused, unhelpful emails, you are actually placing an unkind tax on other people. They won’t like that.

They’ll think, “Why are you making this so hard for me? Why could you not have made this easier for me?” That influences their view of you as a colleague, and of your organization. It can have a reputational consequence: things don’t happen that might have happened.

Tell us about the two sentences that you say you rewrite the most.

The two sentences I rewrite the most are the beginning and the end. That’s because the beginning of any written communication is really where you set out to the reader, to the consumer, what you’re trying to do. It’s not just functional. It’s also a way of getting their attention, of making them want to hear more. So it’s absolutely vital that the beginning of any communication is doing both of those things.

It’s also vital, at the end, that you leave someone with a thought. Whatever communication you’ve been involved in, whether it’s an hour-long speech or a two-paragraph email, you are trying to pass on some information. And sometimes, you’re trying to ask for information in return.

You want to pull all that together and leave people with a thought that will make them more likely to understand what you were saying in all of those different dimensions. So I really pay a lot of attention to the beginning and the end. I might write them once, twice, three times. Then, as I keep working on the communication, I’ll come back to them. I’ve actually got a copy of the book here. As you asked me that question, I thought, “Well, let’s look at the beginning and the end of the book,” because they make my point reasonably well.

The first five words of the book are, “We all know the feeling.” I go on to describe the feeling of people responding to you in a way that suggests they’re not understanding you, that you’re not managing to communicate with them, that you do not have their attention.

I wanted to start with, “We all know the feeling,” because I hope it says to the reader that this is a book that perhaps is rooted in journalistic techniques and communication techniques. Yet it’s a book that’s relevant to everyone, because we all communicate with people. The way we interact in written form, in verbal form, shapes the experiences we have in the workplace.

From the very beginning of the book, it was vital to me to say that the challenge I was hoping to tackle was not just specific to my trade. It’s something we can all relate to. So that’s where I began.

Skimming to the end, I wanted to get across that it’s not a chore you do because, “Oh, I must do this.” You do it because, actually, it feels good to communicate well. It feels good for people to understand you. It feels good for people to know what you’re sharing and what you’re asking of them.

Trying to improve how we all communicate and interact with people is not something to be feared or viewed as a big workload. It can change the way you interact with people and change what happens in your life.

The end of the book conveys, “Once you start doing it, there’s no going back.” I wanted the sense that optimizing communication is not a chore, but an exciting thing to take on. Trying to improve how we all communicate and interact with people is not something to be feared or viewed as a big workload. It can change the way you interact with people and change what happens in your life.

I hope the book creates a sentiment that people can take away. I hope it makes them feel excited to try and put into practice some of the practical advice. So the beginning and the end are very important to me.

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