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The good, the bad, and the science of communication

What makes a good communicator? We may think we know, but how many of us really excel when communicating?

A successful career in sales and marketing led Tim Pollard (MBA, 2003) to a career-defining curiosity where he sought to understand and capture the underlying “science” behind communication. Now the Founder and CEO of Oratium, Tim shines a light on the misconceptions that could prevent someone from becoming a world-class communicator, along with providing the tools that allow them to do so.

What does Oratium do?
We teach people how to tell their story effectively, and in many cases, this brings companies a tremendous economic return. Take sales for example: it amazes me how many companies have well-engineered, brilliant solutions that solve important customer problems, but for a variety of reasons, they just can’t communicate the true value of these solutions in an effective way. Very often the only thing getting in the way of their success is how they share their story, and that’s where we help.

What inspired you to set up Oratium?
I’ve always been interested in communication: why it works and why it often fails. And why the overwhelming majority of presentations land somewhere between lukewarm and awful. I spent around ten years trying to understand the science behind that. I looked at research in all fields of cognitive neuroscience, seeking to understand the ‘rules’ of how communication works, and I then embedded it into a learning and consulting model.
I launched Oratium as a hobby, but now the likes of Disney, Siemens, Schneider, Salesforce, and LinkedIn use our model.

Why did you choose to study at Warwick?
Warwick had a great reputation and a very compelling story. But the crucial distinctive for me was the flexibility of the distance learning MBA. This allowed me to keep working and as I travel a huge amount for work, I did almost the entire course on a plane. With the flexibility to study in a way that worked with my schedule, the programme worked really well for me, and I ended up with a Distinction.

" I never opened a book at home or at work: I actually did most of my MBA on a plane."

How did your time at Warwick influence who you’ve become today?
The Warwick MBA was diverse enough that it gave me a window into things I wouldn’t normally have picked up, such as operations management, organisational behaviour, and entrepreneurship. The MBA was useful in my corporate career but became even more so when I started my own company. I had to master several different disciplines that have nothing to do with my passion for communications consulting, but you can’t be a CEO and not understand these things. There was an outstanding entrepreneurship class in the MBA, which talked about critical moments in the growth of a company and understanding how processes need to change as you hit certain growth milestones.

What are the most important factors in effective communication?
Great communication has nothing to do with what the traditional presentation skills industry tells you. Eye contact, body language, and ‘power posing’ have no relevance, as none of those things correlate with success. Honestly, that stuff is rooted in 1950s thinking and focusing there is going to be of no real help whatsoever. To put it into context, in my second book Mastering the Moment, which was about presentation delivery, I wrote one chapter on eye contact and body language and it was just seven words: “Have some. Don’t be weird. That’s it.” If you’re focusing on only the physicality of delivery, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing.

The fundamental thing people need to understand is that great communication isn’t about the delivery of the message. It’s about the design of the message. Obviously, it’s impossible to truly quantify this but I’d argue that around 80% of effective communication is about content architecture. Is your message concise, logical, does it anchor in an audience priority, does it equally engage the audience’s rational and emotional centres? (and why are you using slides? You don’t need to). These are the questions that matter. That’s why my first book The Compelling Communicator was about content architecture. How do you build a message that lands with impact. When we coach people, whether it’s an electrical engineer or a Fortune 500 CEO, we spend most of the time on the structure and refinement of the argument, and only the smallest amount of time on delivery (usually their language)…and virtually none on their physical demeanour.

This all becomes increasingly important as more communication goes virtual. People communicate poorly as a default, but these mistakes are significantly amplified in a virtual world. When the world went virtual, we became obsessed with mastering the platforms, but platforms were never the real issue. The real issue is far more interesting: communication is a dynamic social process. The mistakes you might have got away with in a face-to-face meeting will destroy you in the ‘socially sterile’ virtual meeting. For example, you might have somehow kept your audience engaged with a bloated 30-slide deck in a live meeting. Try that over Zoom and see what happens.

What's been the proudest moment of your career so far?
My recent TED Talk was the 7th most watched TED Talk in the world in June and July 2022. It was flagged as being “of special significance”. I feel like this validated much of what we believe and what we teach. I’ve also delivered some big keynote speeches over the years, one being at Disney with 3,000 people, which really kickstarted the company.

Who inspires you?
I’m always looking at who is an impressive communicator (and who isn’t), and you find them in the most unlikely of places. Some of the world’s business leaders are astonishingly bad communicators, but by far the best I ever saw was an elderly holocaust survivor, named Eva Kor. Sadly she recently passed away, but she spoke extensively in her latter years, and somehow she just instinctively did everything right – it was astonishing.

And it’s an important skill to cultivate. Communication is probably the single most critical skill a human needs to possess. You can’t be effective if you can’t communicate your ideas to others. But the good news is that true mastery is within the reach of anyone who’s willing to do the work. Communication isn’t fundamentally about natural talent or ‘gifting’. It’s about a series of tools and processes that anyone can learn.

"If you aspire to be a world-class communicator, then it’s within your reach. You just have to learn the right skills.”