The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Ethan Zindler of BloombergNEF
There are many ways to provide advice on common sense communications. One of the best is to, well, actually provide advice. This month, we have a wonderful example of that with a Common Sense Colloquy with Ethan Zindler, head of the Americas for BloombergNEF (BNEF). Ethan weighs in on what we can learn from others, the role of journalism in communications and more. It’s great stuff – and so helpful. Ethan’s advice brings to mind the adage that sometimes the best advice is the simplest.
In his role at BNEF, Ethan is the organization’s primary spokesperson in Washington, and he is regularly quoted in media and asked to testify before Congress. He also manages the company’s analyst and commercial teams throughout the Americas with teams in Washington, New York, San Francisco and Sao Paulo. And if that weren’t enough, he also oversees Climatescope, a project to “profile clean energy investment conditions in emerging markets.”
Earlier in his career, Ethan was BNEF’s Head of North American Research. He joined the firm in 2005 when it was known as New Energy Finance. Prior to that, Ethan served in the White House, worked for MTV and was a freelance journalist covering the World Cup (twice). In his role as a reporter at the Cape Cod Times, he covered the proposed Cape Wind offshore wind farm for two years.
We’ve had the pleasure of working with Ethan for the past five years on the annual media rollout of the Sustainable Energy in America Factbook which BloombergNEF produces with our client the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. Ethan is smart, funny and direct. And he knows what he’s talking about, commanding respect from everyone with whom he comes in contact, including us!
With the media rollout of the 2020 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook now complete as of last week, we’re happy to have this opportunity to highlight Ethan’s wisdom and common sense as part of the Common Sense Colloquy series.
We thank Ethan for sharing his insight with us – and you.
Q: What should we be learning from data and trends on energy financing that will help us be better communicators?
A: Well, perhaps obviously, keep it simple when talking to non-finance folks (most of the world). Basic charts with bright colors are often best. Use as little jargon as possible. Try to speak in language normal people use. The problem with finance is it’s very technical and yes, the devil often lies in the details (hello, sub-prime mortgage financial crisis). But if you don’t keep it really simple, you lose the audience pretty much immediately. We at BloombergNEF talk about all kinds of capital flows that go to different kinds of techs and ventures. On a good day, we keep it really simple. On a bad day, we probably confuse ourselves a little! I think we have more good than bad days though.
Q: What do you wish journalists would understand about energy finance? How have you adapted your messaging to reflect the challenges of pitching data?
A: I wish they’d understand a lot of things. I guess a good place to start is the difference between debt and equity and the differing demands of lenders and equity investors. It’s not always an easy thing to get your head around, particularly in the area of clean energy where we have things like “yieldcos” and “tax equity investors” that definitely muddy the waters. But the basic idea that lenders expect to get paid certain interest rates over time and typically are taking lower risk. Equity investors are taking bigger risks and thus expect to earn bigger returns.
I’d also like reporters to always take a second look when someone says, “there’s not enough money for my [project/company/etc.].” There’s an awful lot of capital in the world and we’re operating in a very low interest-rate environment today so many investors and lenders are really seeking opportunities. So often, the reason why a project/company/etc. can’t secure financing is because it’s not deemed to be investment-worthy by those who, yes, do have money but don’t want to deploy it.
Q: In your career, you’ve been a political press secretary, a journalist and a business analyst. What have these experiences taught you about communications and how do you apply those lessons to your work today?
A: See answer to question 1: keep it simple. I know from my days as a business reporter at the Cape Cod Times and doing a little freelancing for the Wall Street Journal’s Personal Journal section that journalists almost every day are asked to take crash courses in new topics. So, you can’t expect them to know the lingo of your world and you can’t expect them to care enough to learn it. Break things down. State things clearly. Don’t worry about sounding patronizing. Reporters generally aren’t shy about telling you to shut up if they already know something. They’re busy folks.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
A: If you don’t understand what you’re writing/saying, then your audience doesn’t either. I remember as a reporter jotting down various technical things sources would tell me then chucking them into my story. My excellent editor, Susan Moeller, would then say, “Maybe I’m being stupid, but I don’t understand what you’re saying here.” It’s an incredibly polite way of saying that either you don’t know what you’re talking about or you haven’t explained it well enough. In my current job, I’ve edited at least 1,000 pieces of research we produce for our clients. I like to tell the analysts I edit that I use my ignorance to my advantage. If I can’t understand what they’re saying, then neither can our clients!
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
A: Don’t worry about patronizing our clients. There can be an annoying trend within the energy world to try to look super-smart by dropping tons of acronyms and other jargon. We at BNEF can definitely fall at times into this trap, in part out of fear that others in the sector will not respect us if we don’t “speak the language.” I find this is especially true with our more junior analysts who find themselves tasked with giving presentations to rooms full of folks with 10, 20, or more years of experience in the field.
But patronizing is a risk I’m just about always willing to take. I can’t ever recall a client saying to us, “honestly, I really wish you guys hadn’t wasted the time to re-explain how X worked.” I’ve been editing BNEF research 15 years now and no one has ever made that complaint.