Career & Success

Know What You’re Saying: How Communicating Tests Our Understanding

In this episode, Gregory LaBlanc says it’s not about what you know — it’s about how well you can communicate it.

April 25, 2023

We’ve all been there — we think we understand something, but when it comes time to explain it to someone else, we flounder.

According to Gregory LaBlanc, a lecturer in management at Stanford GSB, the attempt to communicate a concept reveals whether we fully grasped it in the first place. “If you think you understand something, but you’re incapable of communicating it, it probably means that you don’t really understand it,” he says.

For communication to be effective, LaBlanc says it’s not enough to transmit a message. As he and Matt Abrahams discuss on this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, we have to be skilled translators, adept at decoding our ideas and recording them in ways our audience will understand.

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: A lot of our communication is really about translation. Translating our ideas so other people can understand them. Being a leader, a manager, a working professional, part of your job is to understand the context, the knowledge level, the information that you need to communicate and translate in a way that people can understand it and work on it. My name is Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast.

Today I’m excited to be joined by Greg LaBlanc, who is a lecturer at Stanford GSB and Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. His research lies at the intersection of law, innovation, and the use of data in rapidly-changing industries. Greg’s teaching covers many topics, including data strategy, digital transformation, human resource strategy, and behavioral finance. Greg also hosts the the Unsiloed podcast, which recently was added to the GSB podcast family. Welcome, Greg.

Greg LaBlanc: Thanks, Matt. Great to be here.

Matt Abrahams: I am super-excited to be chatting with you. And I know we’re going to talk about lots of cool topics, including podcasting. Let’s go ahead and get started. You are truly a renaissance man. Your areas of research and teaching cover such a wide range of topics. I’d love to focus on a few of these today that directly relate to communication. Let’s start by talking about data, their importance and organizational success, and your advice and guidance on who best to communicate data inside and outside of an organization.

Greg LaBlanc: That’s a great question. I’ve been teaching courses on data for a long time. And a lot of people think of this as a quantitative topic, where you have to understand the math and so forth. But I find that it’s equally a qualitative topic. And you have to have an intuitive understanding of what’s happening and how to ask questions, how to answer questions, and so forth.

And in my experience, if you think you understand something, but you’re incapable of communicating it, it probably means that you don’t really understand it. I think it was Einstein — I’m not sure — who said, “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother or to a five-year-old, then you probably need to go back and reexamine what it is that you think you understand.”

And I think that’s true not just for communicating with others, but also can you communicate it with yourself? Can you put things in you own words? So I always encourage students to put what they’re learning into their own words, so that they can explain it back to themselves.

Matt Abrahams: I think all of us who teach have learned that having to teach something really forces you to learn it in a way that just thinking you know it doesn’t bring you to that same level of knowledge. When it comes to taking numbers and taking data and communicating them, are there certain best practices you encourage your students to think about using analogies, making sure people understand the baseline or base rates? Anything in particular you focus on?

Greg LaBlanc: We have three different ways of understanding the world. We have the formulaic way that involves complicated explanations. But we also understand things through stories, the narratives. And we also understand things through pictures and images. And those are a little bit deeper. They go back a little further in our evolutionary history. And so I try to encourage everyone to explain every concept in each of those three ways. So you should be well-practiced in switching gears and switching modes of explanation in all three ways.

Matt Abrahams: So it’s like casting a wide net to bring in as many people as you can.

Greg LaBlanc: Yeah. And I think that even with the same audience member, if they see all three types of explanation they’re going to learn more, than if they’re only exposed to one.

Matt Abrahams: Absolutely. So getting people to think through different modalities I think absolutely helps them connect better and remember more. And it also forces all of us as communicators to stretch what we’re comfortable with. Because I think many of us gravitate towards one of those three, and that’s just the way we communicate. And by reminding ourselves that we have to leverage more can help us more accurately communicate the information.

We had our colleague, Rob Siegel, on this podcast a while back and we discussed the challenges and benefits of corporate digital transformation. I’m curious to get your take on how companies and their employees can avoid some of the common pitfalls involved in digital transformation. And I’m going to give you extra credit if you talk about communication in your answer.

Greg LaBlanc: I’m trained as an historian. Historians are always very skeptical when they’re told everything is new, we’re experiencing unprecedented change, and so forth. So we always tend to look back and say, “You know what? I think we’ve seen this thing before.” So I think that we are undergoing this massive fundamental transformation, but we’ve been through transformations before.

And I think to be a good manager you have to be a change manager. It doesn’t take a Stanford MBA to sit on top of a steady state and to just administer some inputs and outputs. To be someone who can change that function and radically transform things, that’s really the most difficult aspect of business. And so I think that management today is increasingly change management.

Now that said, of course, the specifics of digital transformation are really about understanding how to match organizational architecture with the technology. And if you bolt on new technologies to existing organizational architecture, existing incentive structures, existing cultures, then you’re going to have a Frankenstein monster company. So it’s really about the management and the technology and how they fit.

Matt Abrahams: So it sounds like we over-index on the technology and we don’t think about the actual specific, interpersonal, managerial, day-to-day interaction piece. And, of course, when you talk about change management you’re talking about communication. How do we align people? How do we articulate clear goals, or key performance indicators? How do we get people in lockstep?

Have you, in your classes or in your experience as a consultant, seen that there are certain traps that people fall into beyond not seeing the change management piece?

Greg LaBlanc: Yeah. One of the reasons why I chose the term unsiloed for my podcast is because I’m a big believer in, I don’t way to say multitasking, but being multilingual. Being able to understand the discourse of different disciplines within the academy, but also understanding the different discourses of the different functional areas within a business.

So I think many poorly run organizations have people that are overly specialized and they lack the capacity to communicate with people in different functional areas. Oftentimes, the people who are on the tech side of the business can’t talk to the folks on the business side of the business and vice versa. So I think that in today’s world to be a successful business person, successful manager, successful executive you have to be bilingual, trilingual, quadrilingual.

And you have to be able to translate. So you have to be able to translate what’s going on on the tech side of the business to the folks who are less tech savvy. And you also need to be able to translate the business objectives to the folks who are in the tech trenches. And if you can do that — and sometimes I wonkishly say that’s like being a human API — if you can be the human API within the organization who is the connector, the translator, then you will, ultimately, be indispensable and, ultimately, super-successful.

Matt Abrahams: I like that notion of human API being that interface that connects and translates. I recently interviewed a senior leader at the company that includes cliff notes, because I was interested in how do you relay complex information in a concise way. And he convinced me that it’s not just the transmission of information, it’s really about translating that information appropriately for the audience that you’re working with and talking to. And that’s exactly what you just said. As managers, as leaders part of our job is to translate information, rather than just broadcast information. I think that’s really important.

You are clearly a master teacher. You have won numerous teaching awards. Can you share some of your insights and teaching tactics you use that could help all of us as we mentor colleagues and pass along information in our work?

Greg LaBlanc: Well, those are some nice, kind words. I always think that there’s room for improvement in the world of teaching. But I think when it comes to teaching you have to start with respect. You have to respect your students. You have to respect where they’re coming from. You have to respect what they bring to the table. And you have to understand that you’re going to learn from them. And if you walk into the teaching experience with a view to learning, then I think that you’ll be successful as a teacher.

At Berkeley, where I also teach, one of the mottos is students always. So you’re going to be a student for the rest of your life. And if I can go in and add to that, I would add a fifth defining principle, which is teachers always. And being a teacher is being a student. I started in a Montessori school. I did Montessori through the third grade. And I knew when I was about three-years-old when I started Montessori school that I wanted to be a teacher.

Because in Montessori school, as soon as you learn something you have to turn to the people next to you and you have to teach them. And maybe you start teaching them before you’ve even fully-ingested what it is that you’re learning. And then as you start teaching it, what you encounter on the other side of that teaching interface helps you, then, to go back and learn better.

And so I really believe in that Montessori approach. It sort of informed everything that I’ve done. So to be a teacher you have to be a good student. I think that’s the one overarching principle and rule that I would recommend to every teacher.

Matt Abrahams: And while it makes sense intuitively, I think a lot of people who find themselves in positions where they are teaching people feel like they have to be the expert. Like I have to know this, and I know something you don’t know. And that sets up a very different relationship than what you’re talking about, which is I have some things that I’ve learned that I can pass to you, and you have some experiences you’ve learned that you can pass to me. It’s much more collaborative.

So while it sounds intuitive and makes sense, I think a lot of us who find ourselves in teaching positions don’t always adopt that point of view. And the first thing you said when I asked the question, you said you really have to understand where your students, your recipients, the people you’re mentoring are coming from, so that you can adjust and adapt. And that’s a theme that we’ve heard lots on this podcast. You have to know who you’re speaking to and how to adjust to that audience.

I want to turn now to your podcast. When you and I first met I was in awe of the number of episodes you do and how frequently you do them, and the amount of reading that you do to prepare yourself. You do several episodes a week and you read several books a week. I am a very slow, methodical reader. I always have been. It’s been a challenge for me. What advice do you have to help people read more quickly, or take in information more quickly and make it actionable? Because you clearly do that well. How do you do it? I want to learn personally.

Greg LaBlanc: The skill that I’ve developed is one that I encourage students to develop. And I think part of what you’re learning in graduate school is you’re learning how to process information more quickly and effectively. And to somehow take this firehose of information that’s coming in from all directions and make sense of it.

And so if you have frameworks and theories and models, these are preexisting structures, which allow you to, as the information comes in in real-time you can sort it into different buckets. I like to talk about like a compression algorithm. If you have an image, if you’re storing a movie and you go from frame to frame, you don’t store every single frame. You just store, okay, what changed when you go from frame two to frame one? And that’s a tiny, tiny bit of incremental information.

So when I’m reading books I’m looking for, okay, what’s new here? What lines up with what I already know and that I’ve already seen? And I just check that box and say, “Okay. This person is using this, this, this and this. And this framework to structure, this theory,” etcetera. And then, boom! When I see the new stuff that’s when my eyes light up. So I’m reading the entire book, I’m reading every word, but if it’s familiar it flows very, very smoothly. And then I slow down when I see the stuff that is new.

Matt Abrahams: So part of what I’m hearing you say is that when you’re reading you’re synthesizing and prioritizing and packaging the information according to framework structures and theories that you’ve already had in place. And that’s really insightful for me, because I do that retrospectively, not concurrently. If I’m done reading something I’ll say, “Oh, that links here.”

And what I’m hearing you say is you’re doing it in real-time. And I can see how that can help me, and I can imagine it would help many of our listeners, especially when you’re taking on new content or if you’re new to the language that you’re learning it in. If you can think about those heuristics in frameworks and apply them in the moment that can really help. I think you’ve just made my life easier. I can read more quickly now.

Well, you know we like to end this podcast by asking the same three questions of everybody. So now it’s your turn. Are you up for answering the questions?

Greg LaBlanc: Yeah. I’ll give it a try.

Matt Abrahams: All right. You’re going to do great. If you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be?

Greg LaBlanc: I think it would be meet them where they are. I think it was Ignatius Loyola that is famous for having said this first. And I had spent some time at a Jesuit high school, and maybe that’s where I picked it up. But the idea is that people are where they are when you first encounter them. And they’re not going to be where you wish they were. That’s why I would say that I don’t think of myself as a great communicator because I have a long way to go with respect to this principle.

I communicate best when I encounter people who enter the interaction with a lot of curiosity. And when I meet people that maybe are set in their ways they don’t do so well. And so I need to get better at this. But if you don’t meet people where they are, then you’ll never get anywhere in conversation. You’ll never get anywhere with communication. You’ll never get anywhere with teaching.

Matt Abrahams: I think that’s exactly right. And, again, you’re coming back to this theme of translating. And the only way you can translate is if you know where one person is to help translate the information to where they need to be, or you would like to get them. And many people like yourself who are very good at communication say the same thing, that I need to get better. I can get better I know. And so there’s this introspection that comes with good communication, recognizing that there’s more work to be done. And that really motivates what I do in my profession and the core of this podcast, too.

Let me ask you question number two. Who is a communicator you admire, and why?

Greg LaBlanc: Wow, that’s a tough one because there are so many people that I admire. I’d have to go back to a professor that I had at the undergrad and the grad level. And this professor was someone who taught intellectual history. And he would teach every week a different author, a different philosopher, a different literary figure. And while he was teaching that person he would inhabit them. He would become them. He would stand up on stage and it was as if this person had come back to life.

And some of these people were people that I knew later socially that [he agreed] with profoundly. But he would inhabit them so effectively that you couldn’t but get swept up in the enthusiasm that they had and that they brought to their work. And, of course, these folks were often in contradiction with one another. And I thought, wow, that’s the best way to understand these authors, is to kind of live inside of them.

Matt Abrahams: One of the things that stands out in your answer is this notion of empathy and really understanding the person that you’re talking about teaching, or talking to and teaching. That’s an important skill to have. And I think it would have been great to have learned some of the philosophy and great thinkers I learned from a professor such as the one you had versus the ones I had, which back in the day on acetate bullet points just walking through their points of view. So, clearly, your experience was different than mine.

Let me ask question number three. What are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Greg LaBlanc: I’m going to say level, length, and levity. So when you’re communicating you have to pick the right level. Meaning you don’t want to talk down to people. So part of my podcast I know it’s tough for some people, but I don’t want to talk down to people. But you also don’t want to talk up to people. You have to make sure that the sophistication and complexity of what you’re saying is within the reach of the people that you’re communicating with. That’s number one.

Number two, length. Concision is super-important in a lot of contexts. But in other contexts people really want to go deep. And figuring out the length of someone’s attention span, and calibrating what you’re saying, and the level of granularity, the level of detail, the level of depth with their appetite for comprehension, getting that right is super-important.

And then the third thing is levity. I like humor. I like using humor. There are situations where humor might be inappropriate, okay, and that needs to be serious. And so you can be too funny — and I’ve certainly made errors in that direction — but you can also be too serious. And so getting that balance of inspiring affect. And I guess you could apply it to other emotions because sometimes you want the people you’re communicating with to be a little bit anxious.

One of the reasons why people sit in the front row is because they want the adrenaline rush of the professor leaning over them. And if you don’t stimulate that by cold calling, then people don’t learn as much. So finding that right emotional balance in communication. If there’s any fear or anxiety or levity that exceeds the proper parameters, then it will interfere with the communication.

Matt Abrahams: Well, I love, love, love your three Ls. The notion of finding the right level, the right length, and bringing levity in are definitely mantras we can all take into account. And for many of us, just thinking about those going into a communication event I think could really help. Well, Greg, you did not disappoint. Your podcast is called Unsiloed. And I feel like our conversation was unsiloed. That’s exactly what I was hoping for. Thank you for sharing your insight. Thank you for having your podcast be part of the GSB podcast family. And it’s nice to have a fellow podcast host on Faculty. Thank you.

Greg LaBlanc: Thank you, Matt. It’s great.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for joining us for another episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, a podcast from Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Jenny Luna, Ryan [Campos], and me, Matt Abrahams. Our music was provided by Floyd Wonder. For more information and episodes find us on YouTube, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you, and please make sure to subscribe and follow us on LinkedIn.

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