Oct 3, 2010

Understanding Scientific 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.

David Alcantara for The All Results Journals

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