“The flight will be delayed while several of the seats on the plane are replaced. Believe me, we REALLY want this to happen.” It is highly likely that this is about the last thing you want to hear when you are waiting to board a plane. Of course you also might think this is about the last thing you want to read in a blog about science careers. Well, the reason I’m bringing this up is to illustrate a point that routinely trips up a large number of scientists when they are out either looking for a job or trying to advance their career. I’m talking about communicating effectively. In the business world, scientists tend to have a bad rap when it comes to their ability to communicate effectively, especially with non-scientists. What is unfortunate is that this bad rap is usually deserved.
Scientists generally feel very comfortable talking to other scientists. This isn’t at all surprising when you consider that two scientists will likely share the same lingo and have similar backgrounds. Experts break communications down into several different parts and one way of breaking it down is with the following four categories: Technical Literacy Style Flexibility Emotional Intelligence Social Intelligence Let’s use these 4 categories to look a little bit at why scientists are comfortable talking to each other. In communications, technical literacy doesn’t refer to how current someone is with the literature, but rather to the content of the communication. How well is it tailored to the needs of the audience (whether that audience is one person or many)?
Scientists communicate well with other scientists because they have similar-enough backgrounds that the content of the communication doesn’t require much alteration. Scientists may have different specialties, but in general they share a similar sort of career path and outlook on how to approach problems. This translates into fairly easy communication between scientists.
However, when talking to non-scientists, technical literacy can become a problem because the audience is no longer a peer. To communicate effectively, a scientist needs to understand the background of the audience and alter what they are saying to match that background. I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been explaining our research to a non-scientist, only to get a blank stare in return. That is a disconnect in technical literacy. In social situations, disconnects aren’t usually a problem, but in an interview or on the job, the ability to tailor the message to the audience can make an enormous difference. In my own career, I spent a couple of years giving presentations on the approaches used at Celera Genomics to sequence the human genome.
The audiences I faced ranged from very interested to actively hostile (the competition between Celera and the public project was intense). In these cases, technical literacy wasn’t much of an issue since the room was filled with scientists, however throwing someone without any training into a hostile situation is one way to pretty much guarantee an unpleasant encounter for all.
A little training in communications could have helped a lot, particularly in emotional intelligence and social intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand the emotional state of the audience and to adjust your own emotional state so that you can elicit a positive response. Social Intelligence refers to the ability to frame a conversation in a manner that elicits rapport rather than hostility. Both of these skills take a significant amount of time and practice to master, but the payoff can be significant, particularly if your position regularly puts you in contact with an audience that could be hostile. Style flexibility refers to the ability to understand the needs of different personality types and adjust your communications style to meet the styles of your audiences.
Again, while there are exceptions, scientists tend to fall into rather similar personality types, which means it is usually much easier to talk to other scientists than it is to people like stockholders or potential investors. Understanding when to talk “big picture” versus when to delve into details is part of style flexibility. What is even more difficult, and requires years of practice, is actively putting yourself into one of those other styles. In terms of communications, this can be a very effective tactic, since it eliminates some of the barriers that may exist between you and the people you’re talking to. Again, this can take years of practice both to properly identify the personalities you encounter as well as to be able to switch roles. However, developing good, basic style flexibility tools can be very helpful to you in interviewing and promoting your career. So let’s get back to our gate agent at the airport who was trying to keep the crowd from getting ugly.
She showed a high degree of emotional intelligence and social intelligence (recognizing that the audience could get hostile and defusing it with humor while generating good rapport). She also used some basic tools of style flexibility. She wasn’t giving the gory details, but was explaining a big picture that could be readily understood. NOBODY wants to sit in a seat that needs replacing. Compare her approach with the more typical one of explaining the delay as due to “mechanical difficulties”. If she had used this tired, old approach, her message might not have gone down as well with the passengers. Would you have done the same as well? Moving into the corporate world means that you will spend much more time dealing with non-scientists. Developing communications skills takes time and practice. Some of the more advanced skills can take years to master. Fortunately, a high level of mastery early in a career probably isn’t necessary unless you are in a public-facing position.