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Effective Communication

Effective communication is about getting your message across. Specifically, it involves capturing your audience's attention, ensuring your audience understands the idea you are trying to convey, and encouraging your audience to do something with that information, such as remember it, apply it, or provide feedback. A message is not just information; rather, it is the interpretation of the information. It says what the information means for the audience. It is to information what conclusions are to results. If information is the answer to the question What? (as in "What did you find in your research?"), then the message is the answer to the question So what? (as in "What do your findings mean to your audience?").

Effective communication, therefore, is centered on the audience: It is audience-friendly, just as effective software is user-friendly. In your communication, focus on what your audience needs or wants to learn, not on what you feel like telling them. Strive to see things from their perspective. Keep in mind all the potential members of your audience (at least those who matter for your purpose), not just those who have expertise or interests similar to your own.

Taking the medium into account

To select your content, consider not only your audience but also the inherent qualities of the medium you use. Specifically, distinguish between written and oral communication.

Readers of a document do not need to read everything. They can select what they read and when they read it, they can read at their own rhythm, and they can reread parts of the document as many times as they wish. In written documents, you can therefore convince your audience through solid, detailed evidence, and you should structure this evidence to enable selective reading.

In contrast, attendees at a presentation cannot select what they listen to or in what order they listen to it. They are usually less interested in details they could more easily read in a document. On the other hand, they can get to know you (the speaker) as a person and, ideally, they can interact with you through questions or discussion. In oral presentations, you convince an audience by selecting cogent arguments, by articulating them logically, and, especially, by delivering them effectively. When an oral presentation builds on a written document (such as a conference presentation with a paper in the proceedings, a Ph.D. defense, a grant interview, and so on), you must be much more selective in your presentation than in your document — the idea is not to say out loud everything that you have already put in writing.

Showing respect for your audience

When communicating about science, one main challenge is to respect the intelligence of the audience without overestimating its knowledge of the topic or field. For fear of being insultingly simple, conference speakers often make their presentations too complicated. Many attendees may wish the presentation were aimed at a lower level, although their pride may prevent them from admitting this to the speaker. In contrast, few attendees will complain that a presentation was "too simple" for them. Still, attendees react negatively to speakers who address them as if they are stupid. Perhaps the one thing an audience never forgives is a lack of respect.

Respect is about how you say things (your tone) more than about what you say. In general, dare to say things the way they are. If you need something from your supervisor, go ahead and ask for it. If your experiments failed, say so. If you receive an off-topic question, feel free to flag it as such. As you do so, however, strive to help (not offend) your audience. Politely ask your supervisor (state why you need what you need). Present useful lessons from your failures. Finally, offer to discuss the off-topic question in private.

Respect and tone are hard to define, but they have more to do with intent than with set rules. For example, if you are a Ph.D. student, it might be appropriate to address your supervisor by his or her first name; it depends on him or her and on the institutional culture (a question of rules). Still, starting an e-mail as Dear Leilah or as Dear Dr. Delmont indicates distance rather than respect per se. You could very well call your supervisor Dr. Delmont and at the same time show disrespect in the way you phrase your e-mail, such as by demanding something instead of asking for it (a question of intent).

Given that your intent when communicating about science is to make the audience understand, make it a habit to write and speak in a simple, straightforward way. Instead of striving to imitate the intricate style of many papers, explain things as simply as you would to a colleague, face to face. Show respect to your audience by avoiding undue informality and by crafting and proofreading your text carefully, but do not believe that you have to write or speak in a special way to "sound scientific." Above all, focus on your purpose: Get your message across.


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