June 2012

Complementary skills: communication

Communication skills are critical for success in any profession, and science careers are no exception. Yet employers across the board name poor communication skills as the No. 1 problem in employees. I encourage graduate students and postdocs to develop effective communication skills early on in their careers.

For those of us in science, it is essential to know how to get a message across effectively using multiple forms of communication. For example, an academic scientist must have strong writing skills to get grants funded and publish well-written papers. In industry, business or government, writing reports and documents may be an important part of your daily activities. Verbal communication of research findings with colleagues or at conferences is also fundamental. No matter what form of communication you use, the key to communication success is to know your audience and meet their expectations.

In this column, I will share communication tips with you and provide you with resources to help improve your speaking and writing skills.

Know your audience

When giving a talk or writing about science, you first need to identify who your audience is. Are they nonscientists, undergrads, your colleagues, senior scientists or a mixed group of individuals? Being aware of who your audience is will help you to prepare so that you can communicate effectively at its level of understanding. Communication is all about making sure the audience understands your message and is satisfied by how you delivered that message.

Depending on your audience and subject matter, you need to come up with a good strategy to present the information effectively. For example, I am very interested in writing about science for the general public. I decided to communicate the latest scientific advances on cancer with the public through my blog to increase awareness of this topic and hone my writing skills. Starting your own blog is an excellent way to practice communicating science for lay audiences. “Don’t get so caught up in scientific jargon. Communication is supposed to be simple,” says Geoff Hunt, the public outreach manager for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

You can also take a scientific writing course or attend workshops on scientific writing. I recently attended a workshop offered by the New York Academy of Sciences titled “Writing about Science for the Public.” There are lots of resources to help you develop your communication skills. Take a look at some of the resources I have provided below.

Be prepared

We have all heard the saying “practice makes perfect.” Practicing a talk not just once but several times can make a huge difference. Allow yourself lots of time to prepare, edit and re-edit. Have someone else look it over before your actual presentation. It is important to realize that being a great talker is not the same as being a great communicator. Being prepared will give you the confidence that you need to present the material effectively.

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. 

How to introduce yourself

“Self-introductions should be short and conversational. Share something about yourself, then ask a question that invites the other person to join the conversation.” For more, listen to the entire podcast. 

Common eye-contact mistakes

“When making presentations eye contact is very important. In fact, your goal should be to maintain eye contact 90 percent of the time.” For more, listen to the entire podcast. 

Final thought

In Bob Grant’s article “Right Your Writing,” Judith A. Swan, who earned her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now teaches scientific writing at Princeton University, is quoted as having said, “Success in science takes as much skill with language as it does working in a laboratory.”

I encourage all of you to take note of Swan’s message and seek out every opportunity that you can to sharpen your communication skills. I also advocate for greater institutional responsibility – advisers should work closely with their students and postdocs to help improve their communication skills; graduate programs should require more scientific writing as part of the core curriculum courses; and trainees should be offered more opportunities to practice presentation skills.

Additional Resources 

  1. Wetanson, B. Why communication skills should matter to you. It’s the number one problem, say supervisors. (2011).
  2. Myatt, M. 10 communication secrets of great leaders. Forbes (2012).
  3. Grant, B. Right your writing. The Scientist (2009).
  4. Gopen, G.D. and Swan, J.A. The science of scientific writing. American Scientist. (1990).
  5. Olson, R. Top five tips for communicating science. New Scientist (2009).
  6. Cherry, K. Top 10 nonverbal communication tips. About.com (2010).
  7. Mott, M. Alternative careers for science PhDs part 1: science writing. PostDocsForum (2012).
  8. Forde, A. Scientists step into the classroom. Science Careers Magazine (2006).
  9. Webb, S. Working as a medical writer. Science Careers Magazine (2007).


Aruni S. Arachchige Don Aruni S. Arachchige Don (singamap@umdnj.edu) holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Iowa. She recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship and is now a technology transfer fellow at the Office of Technology Transfer & Business Development at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

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