June 2012

Complementary skills: communication

Don’t wait until you have to write and defend your thesis to learn how to write well. “Writing is a craft that only improves with repetition,” says Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, who is the senior science writer for ASBMB Today and the technical editor for the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She suggests that we practice writing short, succinct pieces (no more than 250 words) without using scientific jargon. These exercises will help you to sharpen both thinking and writing skills.

What is the best way to learn how to write good grants or publish excellent research papers that clearly state the significance of your findings? Practice writing mock grant applications, and take a look at funded grant applications. Ask your adviser to show you a copy of his or her funded grants. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases provides a great online resource containing exceptionally written R01 and R21 grant applications. Other NIH institutes also offer similar resources. Prepare your research manuscripts well in advance so that you have ample time to revise the drafts numerous times. Make sure to receive feedback not just from your adviser but also from those outside your field of expertise.

Reading is also an excellent way to learn how to write well. According to Mukhopadhyay, reading nonscientific literature (e.g., The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) or any news outlet that covers science can be very valuable if you are interested in learning how to communicate science to lay audiences. Her advice is to read about topics you know nothing about. “While reading the stories, see how the writers structure the flow of information, how they use anecdotes and details, and at what level they pitch the explanations.” She also says to consider whether the article accurately covered the scientific information. These sorts of preparations will help you communicate effectively with your target audience.

Meet their expectations

A great communicator knows how to listen. Scientists love to talk about their own research, but it is extremely important to be observant during your presentation. Get a sense for how your audience is responding to what you are communicating, and be prepared to adapt to its needs and expectations. Show respect and engage your audience. Tell a story – a good story. Scientists and nonscientists alike love stories. Need I say more?

The art of communication also includes nonverbal signals and behaviors. Knowing how to communicate effectively using nonverbal signals and behaviors can improve your scientific talks significantly. These skills are important when you introduce yourself, start a conversation, market and promote yourself and your work, and in many other situations.

I highly recommend listening to The Public Speaker, Quick and Dirty Tips for improving your communication skills by professional speaker and writer Lisa B. Marshall. She specializes in communication skills and provides great advice. Some of my favorite episodes are the following:

How to tell better stories

“When we share our memorable moments, when we share our stories, it allows us to connect in a deeper richer way.” For more, listen to the entire podcast. 

How to be a great guest speaker

“The key to being a successful guest speaker is to deliver a message that resonates with the audience and be easy to work with.” For more, listen to the entire podcast. 

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It is nice to have these communication skills before going to graduate school. Very nice article ......



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