By Bethany Huot
This year at The Pub Club we have been focusing on one of the most important aspects of doing science – Communication! While we may view conducting experiments as the “doing” of science, without convincing others to fund our research, no experiments are possible; no science will get “done.” That experiment may be what enables us to move science forward with a breakthrough finding, but how can science be advanced without sharing our findings? Looking through this lens for a second, let’s make a list. We first must come up with an idea, which always involves seeking out and reading literature to guide us in defining important research questions. We often reach out to others in the field for their insights on our ideas. Reading work others have published is receiving communication, and talking to peers is active, two-way communication. We’ve already clarified that once you have a research question you must communicate it well in order to get funded to do the research. Now that you are funded, does the communication stop? Can you get or maintain collaborators without both verbal and written communication? Can you report your progress or brainstorm a problem in lab meeting without communicating? Can you recruit others to your lab if you don’t communicate to them the value of joining? Finally, as we have already said, can your findings advance anything if they are not clearly communicated to those who would use them? Viewed this way we realize that, in fact, Science Is Communication!
Because of this fact, TPC members have been actively working to develop this critical skill. This summer, we held a series of workshops all focused on Science Communication, including developing a Networking Strategy (planning for communication); implementing Storytelling in creating & polishing our Elevator Pitches, developing our poster design, and in sharing the “Big Ideas” of a conference through Twitter; and then combining these ideas using Storify to share the Conference highlights. To fully tell the story of Science is Communication, I have broken it into two posts: “A Time to R.O.A.R.” and “How The Story’s Told.” The goal of this post, “A Time to R.O.A.R.,” is to highlight 1) Why Science Communication is Important, 2) Communicating with a R.O.A.R., and 3) Communication is a Skill.
Why is Communication Important?
Communication is important because, similar to what we have discussed in regards to our Digital Identities, it is happening regardless of the thought and intention we put into it. We communicate with the Words we choose, the Tone we use, and our Body Language. This means that we convey much more than what we say, and that we are still communicating even when we are not speaking at all! Knowing that communication is always happening, the question we should be asking ourselves is not “Is communication important?” but rather “What message are we conveying?” As we have just made the point that we are always communicating something, it is important to distinguish between effective communication – when the intended message is received – and ineffective communication – when a message other than what we intended is received. How can we manage and optimize our communication to be sure it is working to help us achieve our objectives, whether that be obtaining funding, public support, publication of our results, getting a job, or whatever our particular goal?
Communicating with a R.O.A.R.
To properly manage our communication, we must first know what communication is. Communication can be simply defined as “the successful exchange of ideas or information between two or more people.” In the next post we will discuss our M.A.D. Skills (Message, Audience and Delivery) for How the Story’s Told, but, before defining a particular message (or story), we first must learn to structure our story. As we know, structure defines purpose, and our purpose is to Communicate with a R.O.A.R.!
Relevance – Why does it matter? When we communicate, we believe what we are conveying is important; however, this sentiment is not always immediately shared by our intended audience! To maximize our chances of successful communication, we need our audience to want to listen. This can best be achieved by getting their interest, and the best way I know to get someone’s interest is to tell them up front why it is important or interesting to them. Depending on the message, the reason might be specific to them, or it may be of more general importance. Either way, begin by highlighting why your audience should care. For example, to begin a talk about my research, which investigates how elevated temperature affects plant susceptibility to disease, I mention that the right weather conditions can increase pathogen-associated crop loss from ~15% to 100%. Since most of us understand the importance of food, that will usually get peoples’ attention!
Objective – What is the goal? With every communication there is a goal or objective. What is the reason for the communication? Ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish?” If the goal is obtaining funding to do research or convincing editors/reviewers to accept a manuscript for publication, what is/was the point of the research? Say you need a collaborator to pursue a specific line of scientific inquiry, what exactly are you looking for them to contribute? Then there’s the fun stuff – resolving conflicts with co-workers! This type of communication takes a healthy dose of another skill, interpersonal interactions, that employers highly value. Say a certain co-worker routinely uses the last of supplies without replacing them or leaves common work areas trashed after use. Stating the objective first, “Our work will be more efficient if we each …,” gives your lab mate the opportunity to receive your message as an effort to achieve a shared goal to minimize time wasted rather than defend against a perceived attack on their apparent laziness or lack of concern for others in the lab. To be sure our communication is effective, it is essential that we clearly articulate our objective.
Approach – How will the objective be met? Obviously different objectives require different approaches. If the purpose is funding, publication or job seeking, we will need to define not only the Relevance and Objective of our proposed or completed work, but also the methodology. In these cases, our approach will have to be much more technical than in others, and it is important to highlight how what we will do or have done is different from what others have done or are doing. A good way to do this is to compare and contrast your method/approach with what others in the field have done. This should be done in a positive manner, not to minimize what others are doing, but to show your familiarity with the work in the field and your ability to contribute to it in a meaningful and novel way. Another example might be participating in a recruitment event. While you want to inform candidates of the science being done by the lab, you also want to impress on them the value of joining your lab specifically. Therefore, your approach will be far less technical than the previous example, and will include information the recruit can relate to personally. In the case of establishing a collaboration, part of your approach might include sharing how you expect they will benefit from the partnership. This helps establish up front that you are committed to the collaboration being mutually beneficial. In the case of resolving conflicts, it is generally a better approach to offer a solution rather than simply pointing out a problem. However, depending on the person with whom you are dealing, it might also be good to approach the problem by asking for their ideas regarding solutions. This helps create a sense of shared ownership of the problem – we’re in this together – that can help minimize the chance of the other person feeling you are blaming them.
Response – What do you want your audience to do? You have masterfully explained the Relevance, “My research has the potential to save the world from starvation,” you have identified your objective, “I need funding to save the world,” and you have evaluated and defined an approach; now for the finish: eliciting the desired response! Of course, in some cases, coming right out and asking for what you want – “Please, hire me, I’m desperate!” – is NOT an effective strategy, and may turn your ROAR into a whimper! Instead, ask if you would be able to come visit their lab/company sometime for a tour and/or informational interview. Find out when there will be positions available for which you may be a good fit, or if they see anyway your experience could benefit them. The specific question or strategy you use will depend on your objective and desired response.
Communication is a Skill
The last thing I want to point out in this post is that Communication is a skill, and skills take effort over time to develop. No matter how great or horrible we are as communicators, we will only maintain or improve this skill if we devote thoughtful effort to identifying where we are weak and intentionally working to improve. As we are part of a greater Science Community who only benefits by its members being better able to communicate, we can find ways to get feedback from friends and/or peers. Another useful form of feedback is to record yourself and watch it back. I didn’t know I play with my fingers when I talk until I watched a video of me leading a TPC discussion. Now I catch myself doing it all the time! Many of the things we do, especially body language, go unnoticed by us but often not by our audience. It would be a shame to damage our message with something we didn’t even realize we were doing.
In closing, Science is Communication because it permeates every part of what we do as scientists. Communication is important because it is happening all the time, for better or worse, and directly affects our ability to successfully do what we love – Science! Putting thought and intention into each of these – Relevance, Objective, Approach, and Response (R.O.A.R.) – will help clarify our message to increase the effectiveness of our communication, providing our audience with the information and motivation necessary to get on board. Effective Communication is a skill that must be developed by committing effort over time, which includes obtaining and implementing feedback to help us improve. But is learning to R.O.A.R. enough? No! We must also turn that R.O.A.R. into a story. We must “Know our Audience,” “Define our Hook,” and apply the “ABT’s.” This part of the story of communication is told in part 2, “How the Story’s Told.”