Communication Skills for Researchers

17. May 2011

By Jean-Luc Doumont

The time when an introverted scientist could happily hide in his or her lab with guaranteed funding for several decades is long gone. Nowadays, researchers spend a large share of their work time fighting for funding, managing people or departments, reaching out to society, and interacting with policymakers. Add global mobility to the equation and you understand how survival-critical it is to get the attention of an audience, to get messages across to them, and eventually to prompt them to action—possibly in what is not your native language or native culture.

The good news is, you can learn to communicate better at any point of your career path.

If you are a young researcher…
Look for opportunities to enroll in a training program—not (or not just) one focused on language, but one that discusses strategy and structure. Learn what to include—and what not to include—in an oral presentation or journal article, and in what order to include it (and why). Learn how to design an effective graph or slide.

If you hate speaking in front of an audience…
Grab every unimportant opportunity to do it: group meetings, student events, birthday parties and so on. We all learn by mistakes; if you avoid speaking in public until your first big meeting presentation, you will make all of your beginner’s mistakes when the stakes are highest. Similarly, avoid postponing the writing you have to do. Start early. For example, write the introduction to your paper or thesis well before you finish the research. Foresee time for iterations, too: Much of the learning stems from feedback and revisions.

If you are a senior professional…
Question your communication practices. Ask yourself how you learned to do what you do. Was it merely by imitating others or was it through searching for what works and what does not? Look for opportunities to learn further. If you no longer have the time (or the humility) to enroll in a full-fledged training program, at least read about how to communicate well or attend short sessions on the topic.

Above all, ask for—and listen to—feedback from your audiences. Ask specific questions, too. If you merely ask colleagues whether they liked your talk, they will likely give you a polite but possibly insincere yes, an answer from which you will not learn.

No matter how experienced you are…
You can keep learning forever by being highly critical of every presentation you attend, every document you read and every poster you look at. Effective communication is all about the audience; your intuition as a member of that audience is therefore a much better guide than the preconceived ideas you may have as a speaker or writer. You may find it hard, however, to learn from good examples: a brilliant piece of scientific or technical communication will have all of your attention on the content, with none left to notice what, exactly, has made the communication so effective (unless perhaps in retrospect).

Examples of what not to do are easier to analyze. Each time you get frustrated by a presentation or document, ask yourself why. What, specifically, did the speaker or author do that prevented you from understanding or that otherwise distracted you? Is a certain piece of information missing? Is the vocabulary inappropriate? Is the structure unclear? Is anything drawing attention onto itself rather than on the content?

Then think about what would be a more effective approach. You may contemplate whether to share part or all of this feedback with the speaker or author and thus help him or her to learn from it, too. But at least for yourself, let nothing pass: develop zero-tolerance for poor communication.

This post is excerpted from a longer article on the same topic, which will appear in the June 2011 Optics & Photonics News.

Jean-luc Doumont (jl@principiae.be) holds a Ph.D. in applied physics from Stanford University. He now devotes his time and energy to training researchers and others in effective communication. He is a traveling lecturer for OSA.

 

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