The Importance of being Articulate

If you happen to travel in the US-India corridor, as I do, next time watch CNBC in the US and then go watch CNBC in India, or vice versa. You’ll immediately notice some differences.

One difference is in how the two channels see the stock market. CNBC in India treats the market as an ‘actor’. It doesn’t just go up or down, it often has a mind of its own and moves in ‘mysterious ways its wonders to perform’. A lot more air-time is spent on the ‘technical’ analysis of the market. CNBC in the US takes a more ‘fundamental’ view of the market – changes in the market are an ‘outcome’ of what’s happening to the economy, sub-prime loans, oil prices or whatever. More time is spent on analysis of companies and the economy. I wonder what lies at the bottom of this difference in how they see the markets.

Another difference that is immediately evident is how articulate business leaders are on CNBC in the US compared to their counterparts in India. They are not only better tutored on how to handle the press and TV but they are just plain better speakers.

The reasons for this are not too difficult to get to. For Indian business leaders, English is a second language. Throughout school they read and wrote English, and probably well, but didn’t speak it much, unless they had a very privileged schooling. College would have been only slightly better. The first time they had to speak English in earnest was probably after entering the work force. Even then, if they started out as entrepreneurs with small, private companies, they likely still didn’t have to.

How important is it to be articulate? To lead, it is difficult to be good at your job if you are not. There are too many occasions in companies where the conversation with employees is one-to-many. In company meetings, executives must not only be clearly and unambiguously understood by employees, they often need to be motivated to act. Outside the company, in client presentations or media interviews good articulation of ideas becomes even more important.

There are other subtler ways in which being articulate matters. In the US, being articulate in your communication (both spoken and written) is assumed to be strongly correlated with intelligence, good education and a general sign of capability. The education system here emphasizes good writing and public-speaking skills. There are ample opportunities to develop public speaking skills from ‘Show-and-tell’ to debating clubs in the public school system. High achievers typically do speak well. The commonly used word ‘smart’ includes ‘articulate’ as well as ‘intelligent’. This correlation in employers’ minds is not as strong in India as it is in the US. Indians in American companies often face the ‘not articulate’ glass ceiling without even knowing it.

I believe that employers in the US over stress the ‘articulate’ attribute. Firstly, while being articulate is an attribute that is important in a leader, it is not necessarily so for the knowledge worker. In the US, unlike in India, there are practically no ‘written tests’ in the hiring process. I believe it can’t be proven to be non-discriminatory. As a result, the interview becomes the only tool at an employer’s disposal. In an interview as everyone who has ever interviewed will tell you, what you know is important, but how you say it is equally important. Consequently, I think US companies often fail to recognize talent in knowledge workers because they place too much emphasis on spoken English skills.

The workplace has changed a lot in the last two decades. Organizations are flatter. Knowledge workers like software engineers, analysts and researchers, unlike factory workers of the previous decades, are the most important employees in companies as they drive the product or service as well as the innovation in the company. A selection process that selects only ‘future leaders’ will miss out many talented candidates who may never have been great orators, but could have been solid contributors.

Technology also makes a big difference. Spoken English is needed in conversations. But today’s conversations even in companies are happening through email or on internal blogs. Good writing skills can take you quite far in a world where so much of the communication is going electronic.

And lastly globalization will also break down the bias towards the ‘articulate’ attribute. Executives from English speaking countries will realize that being articulate is just one of the many attributes that make a leader successful because they will see so many leaders in their companies from non-English speaking countries become successful. Two, Indian business leaders will get exposed more and more to western business and the media and will develop the skills to bridge the gap.

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27 Responses to The Importance of being Articulate

  1. Shefaly says:

    Basab: Interesting commentary.

    Ernest Rutherford once said that if you can’t explain a result in simple, nontechnical terms, then you really don’t understand it.

    Understanding precedes articulation; curiosity precedes understanding; awareness of one’s lack of awareness precedes curiosity; humility precedes awareness of one’s lack of awareness. Where in this order is our rote-dominant system of education failing Indians?

    In my observation in recent years, many appearing on Indian business and news channels seem to equate ‘glib’ with ‘articulate’, a result, I believe, not just of poor vocabulary but a poor weltanschauung.

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  3. Saumitri says:

    Basab,

    Your point is noteworthy, as it raises an important issue.

    In every sphere of business life, we in India seem to work too much on the “specifics” or “technical details” of the situation, completely ignoring the fundamentals and more importantly the correlations to things that matter.

    However, I completely disagree with your argument about knowledge workers not needing to be “articulate”. A knowledge worker may not know the English language, but he needs to be able to “articulate” his thoughts in whatever language, may it be sign-language for that matter. Articulation comes from clarity of thought and the ability to correlate information and context – and use of whichever language, even if imperfect, can convey that.

    For example, umpteen number of times I have seen a so-called “technically good” person speaking about something in minutest detail, and not being able to fathom that it doesn’t make business sense.

    The reason, I believe, and i have been studying this too, is that the “technically good” person doesn’t read and think beyond his domain. Most of the time, I have found their “solid contributions” wanting with respect to business needs and looking almost like the “technical analysis” of the market as with the mention you make about CNBC in India.

    Our emphasis on learning to pass school, and studying to get a job I believe is our nemesis. In our work-life we end up not being able to appreciate anything other than what we do, and hence have a “micro”-view of things.

    Knowledge workers or leaders, its important to appreciate the macro-view so that everyone knows what they are working towards. Otherwise contributions will be out-of-context. And once we can appreciate the macro-view and can use that to work at the micro-level – the ability to zoom-in and out – that will lead to good “articulation” of the context.

    You are right, globalization is making it happen.

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  4. Saumitri says:

    I agree with Shefaly completely.

    Infact, the main problem I face with Indian clients is that they feel they are “smart” – no humility and therefore no curiosity to learn more. This is true of Indian clients settled in the US as well.

    With clients in the US and Europe, even if they are smart, they hear you out. They are more open to listening. Hence they take in from various contexts and end up being more holistic in their understanding – and therefore more articulate.

    I wish we didn’t think of ourselves as “smart” – but WERE really smart to be humble enough.

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  5. Basab says:

    Hmmm…when the comments diverge so much, it generally means the post was not clear. I think a problem could be that the word articulate is interpreted differently by us. To me it is more than good verbal communication skills. Being articulate allows one to express a complex notion with ease, without putting strain on oneself or ones listeners. Shabana Azmi is articulate in English and Hindi/Urdu. George Bush is not.

    Saumitri, I think knowledge workers need to have good verbal communication skills but need not be articulate. They must have good communication skills, both written and verbal. They must be able to work in teams etc. etc. But if the team has to wait a little while he hums and haws through his presentation, it is a small price to pay for having someone who is innately able to deal with complex concepts.

    Shefaly, I think you are being harsh in your assessment. India has been a closed economy for a long time. But in spite of that Indian leaders generally have a pretty global world-view. They have been willing to learn. Again, you have to make allowances for the fact that India is a huge market and most businesses don’t have to look outside. Till recently, this was very much the case in the US as well. Prosperity and a huge domestic market made most businesses incurious about developments outside the US.

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  6. krishna says:

    On the content front, I think the answer lies in the diverse category of viewers CNBC seeks to address in both countries. CNBC (US) addresses largely the mature institutional investors (and not the lay investor) as most US investors prefer capital market exposure through their professional fund managers. So CNBC(US) does more top down than bottom up. Up until now the Indian investors had a passive exposure to equity only through UTI/LIC/Mutual Funds. But lately, the fabulous returns are driving more investors to turn active / day traders giving them an illusion of maturity in their innate stock selection skills (using channel content) to a great extent. This segment is a sitting duck that grows fatter by the day, too meaty for the channel to ignore. With a utility handle in the form of (seemingly exotic!) technical analysis, that’s easily achieved.

    On the articulation front –

    I guess it’s more to do with synchronizing the language of Indian leaders’ mind with that of their speech. Distortions emerge when you are trained to think in one language and its native culture, translate and speak in another. This cannot be achieved no matter how hard one may try to blend in – one can’t be `tutored’ into erasing thought culture and mother tongue out of her mind. Even between Indians, this is often observed. Fluent one can get in a foreign language and etiquette, but deep inside, outlook and culture will remain alien. Eventually it’s the language that gives in, adopts the culture where its used, as it does with Hinglish and Chinglish or may be Globish some day in future.

    Another aspect is a flair for media. That can be coached to a point but improvements depend on how hard one works on it and how frequent it occasions in reality. Indian businessmen have some miles to go to get there. But fast learners they are, will soon catch up.

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  7. Shefaly says:

    Basab: You say: “Again, you have to make allowances for the fact that India is a huge market and most businesses don’t have to look outside.”

    I think you refer to my use of the world ‘Weltanschauung’. Of course the word does not have as much to do with ‘welt’ (lit.: world) as it does to have to do with ‘anschauung’. I think you will agree that at any rate, articulation is not just something we need to reserve for people outside India. Leaders need to communicate with everyone inside and outside a company. How they see these publics, I think, directly affects how well they prepare and then communicate with them. Mistaking ‘glib’ for ‘articulate’ is probably an indicator of things that go beyond communication and articulation abilities.

    Thanks.

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  8. Saumitri says:

    Basab,

    When you say: “I think knowledge workers need to have good verbal communication skills but need not be articulate.”

    I think what you mean is that they need not be as “sophisticated” in their articulation as a leader, which is fine I guess.

    However, I am talking about it from another perspective:

    Mostly, knowledge workers in and from India lack the ability to articulate effectively – they are unable to gauge whom they are talking to and therefore what they need to say. Often, their understanding is limited to what they have done and hence they are unable to put it in a holistic context. To give you an example, there are several java programmers who will tell you the “syntactical” form of how a particular function calls another – but have no idea how that function relates to the actual business situation. For them, just as in the case on the CNBC India’s analysis, the java code sytax itself becomes the end in itself – with no reference to the fundamentals and the outcome in business terms. You might argue that its not important for them to know the business context – however I do feel its important if they need to add value beyond coding-to-specifications. Verbal communication or not, its more a matter of approach – an approach that can’t be implemented unless people get the ability to zoom-in on details but also zoom-out and look at the fundamentals and the context. All of these come from a clear understanding of context – which comes from opening up the mind, a lot of reading and a lot of correlation of different stuff.

    People are willing to listen to the “hums and haws” as long as the person speaks from clear understanding, is able to put things in context and add value. This is very difficult to do. I don’t believe knowledge workers in India do this well enough.

    I am reminded of engineering days when we had several classes on a chapter on “Vibrations” deriving equations – not understanding what the “x” and “y” meant. Frankly, I never understood anything about vibrations in class – and I thought the Prof. didn’t either. At the risk of not crossing the sessionals/practicals that year, I challenged the Prof. and found that he really didn’t know what the “x” and “y”s meant in the real world. I am sure the CNBC India guys would not know how the stats they show would effect the economy as well.

    Just as mathematics needs to be seen as a modeling tool for a real world problem, the technical formulations of any system is a “model” of a real situation – and its important to be able to understand and correlate that without which articulation will not be clear and effective.

    This is what lacks in our “knowledge workers” and “techies” lack and then when they become leaders in their articulation as well – and they end up substituting it with “glib”.

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  9. Shefaly says:

    Saumitri: I think you agree with Ernest Rutherford too! If one does not understand something, how can he/ she articulate it clearly?

    That said in my recent experiences with BT technical support desk in India, I notice that the chaps have a good ability to judge the level of computer literacy of the customer and to tailor their message accordingly. I think that is good professional abilities which are useful when articulation benefits from them too.

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  10. Surya says:

    I totally agree with Basab on the articulation part. I am horrified at the business concepts of few of teh PSU bosses. There is a lot of learning in literature and Emotion which tells us how to fine-tune the width and the depth of expression. Espescially if one knows a lot in a subject, it becomes difficult not to boast about knowledge irrespective of the context.
    On the CNBC part, technical anaysis rules because of the large FII investment some $40 Billion versus the MF’s which have got around $10 Billion. It becomes very important for retail investors and MF’s to ship out before the FII’s crash the market by 20% while rebalancing their portfolio for risk returns. Moreover absolute stock valuation is difficult in a period of flux as the earnings visibility is limited. Its extrapolation at 9% economy growth & the company’s earning sensitivity to it. Also small changes in interest rate due to a herd of japanese interest hunters like NZ scenario can trigger interest rate falls which can increase the PV of earnings. Which Beta does one take from bloomberg for which stock?

    To think of it, even programming is articulation of a complex concept.If one looks at the service oriented architecture, its nothing more than repackaged Microsoft COM. Interface based design for longevity(Business) and callbacks for Feedback(Business), multiple clients as inherited objects or composite objects is a complex expression.

    C++ programmers are more likely to make errors if they do not understand design patterns. Java idiot proofs you by not having multiple inheritance. To think of it, We have a life which is very sheltered from business in India and therefore we do not pick up business concepts. Amount credited to bank account was mumbo jumbo to me before b-school. With the advent of retail in India, we will have to learn where to shop for the cheapest good provided the fuel bill does not go up. I have known Java programmers who start from OOAD which is object oriented analysis and design. They obviously will not have a problem comprehending the business part because they have worked from the requirements to code. You should see the huge GE manuals on C++ design patterns and OOAD.

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  11. Basab,

    Can you please give some tips that help you articulate well? I am looking for ‘show-and-tell’ like principles both in oral and written communications.

    Chaitanya

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  12. Mohan Babu K says:

    Basab,
    A thought provoking viewpoint, though I am not sure I agree with all of it. [responses in my blog as there’s no trackback here.. :-)]

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  13. Siddharth says:

    It was my pleasure to read this blog and comments.

    Articlation is Capacity of thought, and Capability of structure.

    Articulation is NOT Quality of English.
    Articulation is NOT Verbal Communication.
    Articulation is GOOD Communication.

    Contrast between CNBC (US) v/s CNBC (India) does not reflect the national scores. It is more a contrast of their audience profile. Cable operators in India cater to the neo urban. As Indians are learning how to use the TV news, so are the channels learning how to articulate. BTW, a Marwari does not watch TV to trade. Stock TV is a new thing but money making is an old business.

    The fundamental problem in India’s neo urban society is the fact the people equate “Priviledged Schooling” with “English Speaking”. The tone in which Basab wrote this post is reflective of this syndrome. Sorry, but sometimes it is wiser not to articulate.

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  15. Ashu says:

    Basab – fundamentally, there were 2 issues you tried to tackle in your post – one was the approach taken to understand / explain the stock mkt and the other was the ability of Indian C-level leaders to articulate smartly. Unfortunately, I think most of the responses have focussed on the 2nd part – which is clearly a hot button issue! I would put this down to basically two factors – our indian education system not focussing so much on the public speaking part and second folks that passed out of high schools in india prior to ’90 hadn’t had much interaction with the outside world – barring some mags and bbc radio. The generation passing out of schools today (at least in the metros and from english speaking schools) is generally more at ease with themselves in this regard.

    There is however one other aspect that irritates me as i traverse the indo-us corridor. the number of ads flashing / streaming by on the tv screens and the sheer inane ‘breaking news’ items that flash something new every 30 mins. The sheer triviality of most of the breaking news items makes cnn’ coverage of paris hilton jail sentence seem sober by comparision

    I think both the broadcasters and the audience are yet to achieve a certain level of maturity that may make us analyse the stock market on the basis of pure company/industry. We tend to fall prey to the more pop culture way of looking at stock movements – which can be highly dangerous.

    Cheers,

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  16. Basab says:

    Ashu,

    I think news channels fundamentally end up having to make a choice between quantity and quality of their audience. Most American news channels, including CNN, in trying to appeal to a larger and larger target audience has degenerated to a point where a discerning viewer can’t stand it. CNBC also seems to be hewing to a strategy of broadening its audience to main street investors. More eyeballs, more money.

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  17. Anuradha says:

    To me articulation ( or eloquence to a certain extent) is nothing but the clarity of thought. When you are very clear about what you want to say, it is then you can communinate clearly and you can choose the right words to communicate. And usually when people think in one language and communicate in another, there is a usually a technical issue with articulation, which is more of a language issue.

    As far as CNBC is concerned, I think they are facing the same ‘non-availability of good resources’ issue, like most other industries in India today.

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  18. Anuradha says:

    One more thing: If you have to have conversation with Shabana Azmi, without a script in her hand, you may not find her articulate and that at least not in Hindi / Urdu.

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  19. monideepa says:

    Fascinating post. The difference in approaches between the US and Indian media perhaps reflects our innate differences in attitudes. We in India tend to take ‘smartness’, meaning superficial slickness, for more than its face value. Having done much of my schooling in the US, I noticed that we were encouraged to ask questions and probe further, even as yong children. When I returned home and enrolled in an Indian school, we were encouraged to answer quickly and draw the teacher’s attention. The answer itself was expected to be a repeat of textbook material.

    Language is not an insurmountable barrier to articulation. When there is clarity of thought, it will shine through despite linguistic handicaps. Conversely, mere verbal eloquence will not completely gloss over lack of innate substance.

    IMHO CNBC treats the Indian stock markets right. The markets here have a mind and life of their own. Illogical, whimsical, springing surprises with inadequate substantial reasons, they are like living entities.

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  20. Atul says:

    Mr. Pradhan,

    Interesting thoughts. Our research head also has a similar view. In fact , he actively advocates not watching CNBC, and its hindi avatar , which moves from the ‘technical’ to the ’emotional’ with amazing regularity. Very avoidable.

    Atul

    BTW : I stumbled across this while searching for news about your company.

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  21. Vijay Menon says:

    To me, the ‘Economist’ is one of the best examples of jargon free business articulation. Listen to most business leaders and business channels such as CNBC on most topics and then go read about it in the Economist. The difference in the latter’s ability to tell the story lucidly is refreshing. I hate to say this in this dumbed down world of business communication, but great articulation calls for not just domain knowledge but also a mastery of language. So while ‘Globish’, the world English that we are striving for may be a good ideal for basic communication, people who can articulate with limpid clarity will always be highly prized. And the sooner we realize that and raise the general level of language skills in corporations, the quicker we can elevate our conversations from the pidgin that seems to overtake a lot of intra and international business conversations.

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  22. Saumitri says:

    There is one other aspect we are missing out here – experience.

    True understanding comes from experience and to be really articulate, one needs to have experience – both of success as well as FAILURE.

    Majority of us, in India (except a few risk taking communities) are risk-averse and if you analyse our careers, its a clean slate with no failures to to “hide” but only successes to “show”. Our understanding therefore is one-sided and hence we are unable to place it in “context”.

    Therefore, coupled with pressure to be “smart”(superficial as Monideepa says) and lack of “humilty”(from Rutherford mentioned by Shefaly) our understanding lacks the grasp of fundamentals.

    Hence, we articulate in “glib”-talk to cover up for our lack of experience.

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  23. Shefaly says:

    @ Vijay Menon: The Economist, a weekly publication, has the benefit of an editorial board for every line it prints. Human beings speaking in real-time, live on television, alas, do not have such privilege. Comparing the two is, at best, an informal fallacy.

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  25. Kelpie says:

    Hi! There have been various comments on the insight Basab provided. . . and much of it is elegant educated analysis. . .not surprising. I read through many, and thought about it. There had to be a more elemental and basic trigger or cause, which is simple and not tax our intellect. After much thought and less words I realised this. It is not to do with Education, English, Experience, Etc. it is simply that Americans love to talk! Period! And they are good at it and can talk till the show is over! Nothing derogratory in my comment and it is not faulting anyone, but just an observation. I have found all sorts of people, not just CEOs, in all places talk, and talk, and talk. . . about anything and everything! Staying on the “Articulate” part of the orginal blog, funny that only US business leaders were mentioned and compared to Indian ones, what happened inbetween? European busniess leaders too dont “Articulate” that much, in fact they rarely do (comparitively), what about Japanese business leaders. . .? Moving to the content versus context part, even here the average American is so good at giving a context to the weather, her cat’s bad mood, and Sunday’s game. . .little wonder the business leaders do it that much better!
    I still remember one of my first visits to Haight Ashbury, I saw this guy with a placard, “A dollar for weed?” 🙂

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  26. Vivek says:

    The starting analogy between CNBC india and US was good. Indian media tends to create a hype for every single news these days. But was this analogy relevant to the topic “being articulate”?

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  27. Rohit says:

    Hi,
    That was good analysis between India and US media so I like that.
    So i am giving one link where i found nice posting about Indian media.
    http://toostep.com/idea/what-should-be-the-role-o

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