In the first of a series of interviews, we speak to Deirdre McCloskey, professor of Economics, History, English and Communication – as well author of several books, including one specifically on writing for economists.

 

You can watch the full interview Sweet Talk (5mins) below. McCloskey’s main point is that it’s not enough to simply convey – you also have to convince. The job of economists is to change people’s minds: that requires ‘sweet talk’. Here are some key takeaways:

  • It’s not easy – you need to practice.
  • Talk to your mother. (Assuming she’s not an economist.) Try to explain your idea to anyone who isn’t an economist. If they don’t understand it, then you need to try again. Keep practising.
  • Be concrete. Tell stories. Use homely examples that are real and meaningful to people. Stories can illuminate the meaning — and often you get more insights yourself.

 

 

 

McCloskey reveals how the great communicator Milton Friedman would never shy away from the opportunity to try to convey and convince. In doing so, he not only practised communication but also developed a better understanding of the arguments he was making – having had them questioned by people who knew nothing of economics. This point backs up the insights from other great communicators we will profile in this series: the task of simplifying your idea to the point that anyone can understand it requires a deeper understanding of your point than if you are just talking to economists. In other words: communicating can help you become a better economist.

 

McCloskey’s interview raises another important point. Imagine explaining something to your mother so that she understands. In some ways that’s the easy part. The next step is to convince. If you are talking to your mother, you probably have a good idea how to convince her because you know her. But now imagine talking to someone you have never met. To convince that person requires you to empathise with them. In other words, to master ‘sweet talk’ requires you to know your audience.