Remodeling Communication

Feb 02 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

For a career reliant on clear communication, I'm sometimes struck by how poorly scientists (myself included) communicate. Often we hear this criticism when talking about scientists interacting with the public, but it also applies to our interactions with other scientists via manuscripts, grants, presentations, and even conversations. The why of effective communication is self-evident. The challenge resides in the how. Although my focus here is writing, the ideas can be extended to other forms of communication.

Making the mold

How do scientists learn to write?

Looking back on writing in grad school, I realize that it was a "learn by example" and "learn by doing" experience. I had read many papers in the field and published from my PhD lab. I knew the basic structure of a scientific manuscript. My adviser and I would agree on an outline or framework built around figures. And then it was time to go forth and do. I would write. Someone would critique and edit, and I revise. Rinse. Repeat. Submit after n iterations.

The method can work well - or not.

For better or worse, our templates (i.e. the papers in our lab and field) impact our writing. Even when refraining from copy-paste, you could likely identify which lab published a paper based solely on the first lines of the abstract and introduction. On one hand, there are limited ways to introduce our system; on the other, we may simply follow the road taken by our predecessors without much consideration for alternatives.

Likewise, the editing process shapes our present and future approach to communication. We each have personal style preferences - particular words, phrases, and sentence and paragraph structures that we love or hate. We don't edit solely for clarity and effectiveness, but rather we tend to edit in the context of our preferences. The categories overlap but are not mutually inclusive. I think using word processing tools can exaggerate the influence of individual preferences. It's easier to rewrite sentences and even entire sections,as  compared to cramming extensive edits in the margins or between the lines of a printed page. Whereas using pen and paper we might scribble a note about clarity or verbosity, with a word processor, we might succumb to the temptation to simply "fix" the paragraph ourselves.

In the end, we might not necessarily learn the general mechanics of communication. Rather we learn to emulate a style of writing specific to our advisers and peers.

Breaking the mold

We create a mold and use it. Papers are accepted, and grants (hopefully, eventually) funded. The mold works. Why bother changing it?

Why not? Sometimes our communication needs and goals change - pursuing a different branch of a project, establishing new collaborations, connecting with the public, teaching new students - but there's also intrinsic value in improving what works.

Yet changing our writing is hard. We've adopted certain patterns of communication, learned early in our careers and enforced by daily interactions. Some call it "structural priming" or "syntactic persistence", and we have to work to break away from it. How we break the mold depends, to an extent, on what we want to accomplish, but ultimately we must do things that challenge our approach to communication. Here are some things I'm trying.

Read broadly. It's a daunting prospect in context of publication volume, but if we want write differently, we need to read different things, instead of reading the same authors repeatedly. If we write for a new target audience as we would for the old one, we can miss them altogether. We have to consider what works for our new target, and a good way to learn is to read what they're reading. I think this is especially important when our work moves in new directions. Likewise, if we want to reach a non-expert audience, we should be reading effective science communicators to find out what works. (National Geographic's Phenomena 'salon' is a great place to start.)

Take note of style, not just data. As scientists, when we read a paper or listen to a seminar, we typically focus on data because we're evaluating the quality and applicability of new findings. Regarding style, I think we often consciously note things that make results very difficult to understand, but we rarely actively discuss what makes a presentation particularly engaging. A few months ago, I was reading a paper from Susan Lindquist's lab. There was a certain elegance in the writing that made the science clear and interesting. I mentioned something to this effect on Twitter, and someone asked what made a technical paper a joy to read. I had to think about it. Both obvious details and subtle abstractions come into play.  Several people offered their thoughts, which were collected by Doctor Zen.

Learn more about communicating. Scientists are experts but not about everything. Just as we have invested immense amounts of time in understanding our favorite system and discipline, many others have devoted their time to investigating, applying, and teaching effective communication. Although technical writing may differ in ways, we stand to learn from that expertise. Consider this discursive on zombie nouns or The Writer's Diet test to help identify padding in your writing. Denise Graveline, a communications consultant, shares lots of tips and links at don't get caught and The Eloquent Woman.

Try new things. Some exercises can force us to step outside our routine. We might spin a well-trodden missive into a grim fairytale. We can use platforms that impose limits. Twitter calls for brevity and, in lively threads, rapidity, but the language can be simple or technical. The Up-Goer Five Text Editor provides the inverse experience - use only the top 1000 most used words in English, but as many times as you like. (The sister Up-Goer Six Editor permits use of all words but colors them by how commonly they're used.) Many researchers accepted the challenge to explain their work with Ten Hundred Words of Science. The products of such exercises may not be adequate or appropriate for what we need to accomplish, but they call on us, at least fleetingly, to change how we write, to examine how we use language, and to understand where we can trim or modify language in discourse.

Breaking habits that haunt our keystrokes isn't easy. And despite my opening statement and our collective reputation of being bad communicators, I think many scientists are actually quite deft with different forms and different audiences. But to continue being good, we have to keep improving. How are you reshaping the mold?

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