7 February 2012

UK Business Communicator of the year, 2012: Gillian Tett

Brian Jenner of the UK Speechwriters' Guild recently announced that the title of UK Business Communicator of 2012 has been awarded to Gillian Tett of the Financial Times.

For me, as a former sociologist, it is particularly pleasing to see someone with a PhD in social anthropology, another allegedly 'useless' subject, making a mark with much wider audiences than those in academia.

The full citation is reproduced below between the two clips of her in action.

The world economy is choked with thorns. Few commentators seem to be able to tell us how or why it’s happened. The financial journalist, Gillian Tett, has emerged with a simple and compelling story explaining what went wrong.

The UK Speechwriters’ Guild has awarded Gillian Tett, US managing editor of the Financial Times, and author of Fool’s Gold, the prize of UK Business Communicator 2012. This is for three reasons.

The first is that she is an excellent public speaker. Her voice suggests that she’s not a natural, but her delivery is measured and clear.

The second reason is that her content is excellent. The key story she tells again and again is how she attended a conference of bankers at the European Securitisation Forum in the Acropolis Centre in Nice in 2005 to find out what was going in the credit world.

Despite being an experienced financial journalist, she had no idea what the speakers were talking about.

‘Finance was presented as an abstract mathematical game that took place in cyberspace replete with concepts such as ‘Gaussian copula’, ‘delta hedging’ and ‘first-to-default basket’.’

The bankers’ PowerPoint presentations did not inform or entertain. They had more in common with the Tajik wedding rituals she had studied at university. These rituals were about asserting identity and status within a social group. The bankers spoke a language totally unintelligible to anyone outside the clan.

Tett became determined to unpick the world of collateralised debt obligations. As a journalist with a background in social anthropology, she was able to find similes to describe what was going on. She presents her findings with a wry but appropriate sense of humour.

There is no mystery to how her speeches work.

Tett makes simple analogies everyone can understand (comparing derivatives to sausages). She uses anecdotes involving human beings acting at specific times in specific places. She self-deprecatingly refers to herself as a ‘hippy’ in a world of mathematics and astrophysics geeks. Despite being in a world overflowing with acronyms, she uses words that are familiar to everyone.

The third reason that Gillian Tett has won the award is that she has highlighted a problem that preoccupies the UK Speechwriters’ Guild.

Tett has warned of the ‘silo curse’. Groups of people get together in finance, medicine, engineering, the military and Government bureaucracy. They innovate at an extraordinary pace but they learn to speak a language that nobody else understands.

If everyone outside these organisations becomes convinced that their activities are dull, boring and technical, they will avoid scrutiny with potentially catastrophic results for the rest of society.

To counter this Gillian Tett has identified the ‘urgent need for a large cadre of ‘cultural translators’’, who can explain what is happening in the silos to everyone else. ‘We need people who can join up the dots and present the big picture.’ The UK Speechwriters’ Guild is such a cadre.

Brian Jenner
Chairman of the Judges, UK Speechwriters’ Guild
February 2012


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