A Professional Must-Have: Polishing Up Your Communication Skills

Talking

Long considered a set of soft skills, communication skills are now considered “part of the core professional skills every science student and professional should have.” So says Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer in Scientific American. Echoes Chad Orzel on ScienceBlogs: “If you want to be a successful scientist, you need good communications skills. Full stop. There is no way out of this ­– if you want to be a successful scientist with your own research group, you will need to be an effective communicator.”

Why do life scientists need strong communication skills? 2017’s Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda lists these reasons:

  • To share the findings and excitement of science.
  • To increase appreciation for science as a useful way of understanding and navigating the modern world.
  • To increase knowledge and understanding of the science related to a specific issue.
  • To influence people’s opinions, behavior, and policy preferences.
  • To engage with diverse groups so that their perspectives about science related to important social issues can be considered in seeking solutions to societal problems that affect everyone.
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“Communication,” of course, is not a single skill, but a collection of skills that life scientists apply to basic writing, editing, speaking, interpersonal and presentation tasks. From writing scientific publications and grant proposals to giving technical talks and poster presentations, life scientists need to communicate clearly. Solid skills also are needed because science can present barriers to understanding. “The results of science also can be insufficient, ambiguous or uncertain, and scientific conclusions can change over time as new findings emerge,” notes the Communicating Science Effectively report. “These inherent characteristics of science can create barriers to communication and understanding.”

Here are some tips for excellent science communication, as well as resources to enhance your communication skills.

Know your message. What is the purpose and intended outcome of your planned communication, and what messages will get you to your outcome? Create an outline.

Understand and target your audience. Whether you’re preparing a peer-reviewed manuscript, presentation slides or an informal talk, you can’t communicate without an audience to receive your message, so put significant effort into knowing and understanding your audience and its needs. What is their prior level of knowledge about your topic? Use language appropriate to your audience.

Wrap your message in compelling context. Engage your audience by placing your message in a relatable context. Consider how the social, political and cultural climate affect the context. 

Incorporate storytelling and narrative. Stories are more memorable than facts and help make an emotional connection between the sender of communication and the recipient. Consider adding brief personal stories to your communications, as well as stories that illustrate your points.

Sprinkle your communications with humor, anecdotes, metaphors, startling statistics and imagery to add interest and depth to your message.

Keep it concise. Attention spans grow shorter and shorter. Don’t overwhelm your audiences with more information than they can possibly deal with. Write tight and cut out the fat.

Resources for life scientists eager to polish communication skills

Readings

Professional Organizations/Associations

  • AAAS Communication Toolkit: Provides guidance for scientists to build skills to more effectively communicate and engage with public audiences, including ways to apply the fundamentals of communication to scientific topics.
  • ComSciCon: The Communicating Science workshop for graduate students
  • Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): Provides scientists with communication resources and also facilitates dialogue between scientists and the public about the benefits, limits, and implications of science
  • Art of Science Communication online course, American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), provides scientists with communication resources, and it also facilitates dialogue between scientists and the public about the benefits, limits, and implications of science.

Models of Science Communication

  • iBiology: More than 500 research talks from the world’s leading scientists

Science Communication Trainers

At a time when significant anti-science sentiment pervades the culture, clear, effective science communication could not be more important. Optimize your communication skills to differentiate yourself as a champion of life science.

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