Stamatakis: Communication crucial when it comes to progress

By Nick Stamatakis

Watch out everybody, an engineer is about to give communications majors some love.

I must… Watch out everybody, an engineer is about to give communications majors some love.

I must say, such language would be unexpected from me before last summer. Like most engineers, I had a little bit of that lovable and well-known engineering attitude toward everybody else.

But as the economy begins to unravel again, pundits and economists continue to debate the correct course of action. And it’s clear that facts or even ideas don’t really move the world, like engineers and scientists often suppose; both of those things are too abstract to capture people’s hearts. Instead, it’s people that do. And people only move the world if they can communicate.

This doesn’t mean ideas don’t change the world — democracy and Taco Bell’s Fourthmeal all spread because they brought greater benefit to everybody in fundamental ways. But without an effective vessel, whether it be a Thomas Jefferson or a flashy advertising campaign, nothing happens.

The most crystalline example of this was an August taping of ABC News’ Sunday Morning program, “This Week,” featuring liberal economist Paul Krugman, conservatives Grover Norquist and George Wills and commentator George Stephanopoulos.

Krugman, a fierce proponent of government spending, defended his position with logic and statistics. He said that whereas companies are holding vast amounts of cash, they aren’t investing in jobs because they don’t perceive any real demand for more goods. Government spending provides demand for a new, vibrant economy.

Yet judging from the other panelists’ responses, his message didn’t appear to have much resonance. Norquist and Wills responded sarcastically and cynically, ignoring some points and talking around others. Stephanopoulos, theoretically the moderate, dismissed Krugman’s points as well.

One explanation for this is that there is just a genuine political difference between the contributor’s viewpoints. Television, as “Jersey Shore” has taught us, does not lend itself to completely civil behavior. Opposing views don’t generally lead to beautiful friendships, and full attention and respect usually disappear.

But perhaps more explanatory of Krugman’s poor reception was his way of communicating. His speaking style is prickly, consisting of quick jabs and insults, all delivered with shifting eyes and cowering body language. His trademark tactic seems to be insulting the intelligence of his opponents. The smartness and wit of his writing transforms into squirrely jabbering when he speaks.

It isn’t even because Krugman comes across as too bookish that he has a problem. Popular scientist Carl Sagan turned public opinion toward more NASA funding in the late ’90s, maintaining a likable demeanor while giving what essentially amounted to televised science lectures. People can respond to “smart” discussion styles, but they don’t respond well to off-putting discussion styles.

It is little wonder then, that for all of Krugman’s crowing, very little of his policy has been turned into practice. Even with a widely read blog, a column in The New York Times and a Nobel Prize, few politicians seem like they’d ever risk calling themselves a follower of his ideas.

This stands in sharp contrast to Krugman’s intellectual father, John Maynard Keynes, the mid-20th century economist who developed the theories Krugman today professes. Like Krugman, Keynes wrote very persuasively during an economic calamity like the Great Depression, viciously attacking the prevailing economic thought. The only difference was that people liked him.

In his day, Keynes was the Justin Timberlake of economics. His policies became practice not because of evidence, which was arguably lacking, or his logic, which was arguably flawed, but because he had gravitas. He had an uncanny ability to capture the attention of a room. To his supporters, like economist Lionel Robbins, this was a sign of a “unique unearthlike quality of which one can only say that it’s pure genius.” To his detractors, this made him a con, allowing him to seduce important people, such as politicians and students. Either way, it is what made his ideas on economics rule the world from the end of World War II until the ’70s.

This returns me to my praise for the value of communications. Even in one of the most mathematical of the social sciences, economics, change to the world only comes if you can sell it. After all, you don’t buy a car from a poor salesman, you don’t pick a girlfriend because she meets some kind of shallow criteria, and you don’t change the world just because you have good ideas.

All of it, at the worldwide or personal level, happens only because at the end of the day, one person agrees with what another person says. This agreement happens partially because the core idea is good, but also — and maybe just as importantly — because the person speaking is liked. And people like people who can communicate well.

So take a few communication classes if you can, or join speaking groups like Toastmasters International. Be a Keynes, not a Krugman.

To hear why economist Milton Friedman is like Wiz Khalifa, email Nick at [email protected]