5 Ways to Improve Scientific Communication Skills

“Did you understand her talk? Ok, good. Because I didn’t either” – An environmental chemist  after a research presentation from a biochemist.

Scientific communication between scientists can be much more difficult than you’d think. Even if scientists are in the same general field, it can be difficult for them to communicate across the different disciplines. There are many ways in which explanations can break down, including using language specific to your field that others may not know, not having a clear narrative, overly wordy language (to where information gets lost in the long phrases), too much data cluttering your talk or article, and a lack of interest or passion towards your topic.

Over time, you can learn what helps you to talk to other scientists-both in and outside your field- in order to explain your work or collaborate with them. As always, it takes time, thought, and practice to be able to create clear and informative presentations, no matter what the medium is. Without further ado, here are some things that I’ve learned from going to scientific talks, collaborating with scientists outside my field, and writing research grant proposals.

5. Know your audience

This sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many scientists make this mistake during research presentations. I’ve been to a presentation where the scientist was presenting their research as a part of the hiring process at my university and found her explanations to be too full of complex language. Even some of the professors in the room (all with Ph.D.’s in the field) couldn’t understand it! It’s hard to communicate something when you use language specific to your field around scientists in other disciplines or concentrations. It’s a lot clearer when you can use everyday examples, such as raising a book above a desk to explain potential energy or describing torsion by twisting a piece of paper around a pencil. That way, you can communicate to anyone, despite their level of scientific background in any field.

4. Tell a Story

In the cases of research presentations, scientific articles, or writing grants for funding, this is a big deal. Without a clear narrative, the listener or reader won’t understand what the problem is that you’re trying to solve, why it’s important, and how you did or will work to solve it. Narratives shouldn’t be personal narratives such as “I was thinking in lab one day about what would happen if I changed this solution…”, but rather something like “I was curious about the effects of changing the concentration of salt in my solution and designed an experiment that would measure any changes in the rate of my reaction due to the salt…”.

Your story should be broken into 4 parts: the Introduction, Method, Results, and Conclusion/Summary (Schoeberl and Toon, Ten Secrets to Giving a Good Scientific Talk). The introduction explains the background on the experiment (what’s been tried before), why it’s important, what problem you have identified and how you attempted to solve it. Your method is where you talk about what you did in your experiment. Your results section should explain what you found. Finally, your conclusion/summary section needs to include the highlights from your data and how it supports your hypothesis, as well as possible future work.

3. Be Clear and Concise

It takes a lot of practice to be able to distill a complex subject into something that can be explained in a short amount of time or a small paper. It often helps to choose your words deliberately, so that your information comes out clearly. One of the biggest things you can do is use specific words instead of vague ones. According to IEEE, vague words generally conceal your meaning by being abstract. By using specific words, you can precisely show your meaning and have the added bonus of shortening your text or explanation. This leaves little room for doubt in what you’re trying to explain. Another way to cut your wordcount is by simply eliminating unnecessary words. You could definitely start with not having a personal narrative like in #4. Other things you can do would include cutting out repetitive or redundant words (IEEE, Write Clearly and Concisely). Think about the difference between “The computer had activity that was weird in nature” vs “The computer was running slow and had pop-ups.” Which one communicated more clearly?

2. Use Data Only to Support Your Conclusions

Nobody has time to go through lots of irrelevant data on a poster presentation or a talk. Most people are interested in your conclusions and how you got to them. In order to keep everything in your talk/paper/poster crisp and clear, only choose the data that shows the best results to help with your analysis (Boss, Eckert, Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk). It definitely helps to present your data in chart or graph form, as well as some images of your experiment whenever applicable, such as microscopic images. That way, you can make it clear what it is you’re talking about! Additionally, you’ll break up walls of text by doing so, leaving the audience or reader to be more interested and focus on your information and data instead of cringing at the boring text.

1. Be Passionate About Your Subject

When a presenter or writer isn’t passionate about their subject, the listener or reader can definitely notice. This applies more to presentations and email communication more than anything, as articles and posters are written in a systematic technical style. For instance, I’ve found it easy to listen to a presenter- even if they’re in a field completely different from mine- if they are truly passionate about the work they do. Generally, I want to chat with them after their presentation to find out more. When writing or presenting to an audience, show them how passionate you are about your research. By drawing in others, you can teach them something new and maybe even inspire them to learn more about a topic they otherwise wouldn’t have considered.

Written by Alexis K., edited by Shane Warga

Works Cited:

Boss, Jeremy M., and Susan H. Eckert. “Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk.” Science | AAAS. N.p., 10 Jan. 2017. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. <http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2004/12/academic-scientists-work-job-talk>.

IEEE. “Write Clearly and Concisely.” IEEE PCS. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. <http://sites.ieee.org/pcs/communication-resources-for-engineers/style/write-clearly-and-concisely/>.

Schoeberl, Mark, and Brian Toon. “Ten Secrets to Giving a Good Scientific Talk.” Ten Secrets to Giving a Good Scientific Talk. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Feb. 2017. <http://www.cgd.ucar.edu/cms/agu/scientific_talk.html>.

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