Prioritising the Needs of the Many: Great communicators let the message do the talking

Let me start by saying that I am by no way a ‘great communicator’. I’m OK, I’ve never been the one who wins best presentation prizes or anything like that. I have however had the privilege of seeing some truly amazing communicators speak. I’ve also sat through more hours than I’d care to mention of bad conversations,  bad presentations and bad interviews. What these combined experiences have shown me is that truly great communicators focus on the message and not how they want you to perceive them. They let the listener feel like they own the communication and thereby feel like the message is personal to them. They make the audience feel valued and like they matter by creating a shared experience.

We can’t all be great at this, it’s not where everyones skill set aligns. The greats also seem to me to have a bit of magic that probably can’t be taught. For the rest of us mere mortals however there are things we can do, in terms of thinking and preparation, that may make us a little bit better. So what can we do differently?

It’s not about appearing to be the smartest person in the room

We’ve all been there. We’ve probably all reviewed papers or seen talks where the communicator focused on appearing smart rather than the message. They used complex sentences and words to demonstrate just how much of a scientist they are. In some ways it feels like they have done just about everything they can to make it harder to engage with their message, by making it clear that most of the audience isn’t smart enough to understand what it is they are trying to convey.

In fact the real skill with highly complex topics is being able to present them in a way where they don’t feel complex at all. Being able to break down a complex topic into pieces that when combined make the whole process understandable can only be achieved if you yourself really understand your subject. It’s why Feyman utilised trying to teach something as a way to better understand his learning gaps.

Working out what your message is

Before you start the process of breaking down what you want to teach and going into detail you really need to start with the message.  Too many of us when we are trying to plan a lesson or lecture, or even a paper, don’t put in the pre work to think about what it is that we are actually trying to communicate.  What story are we trying to tell.  We don’t often think of communicating science as telling a story but in reality we are, and there is lots to be gained from thinking of it in terms of these structures.  A story has a key theme or message that it is trying to be communicated to the audience.  Stories also build, they are comprised of sections, even if these are simply: a beginning, a middle and an end.  Before starting to communicate we should therefore think the same way about the topic we are trying to get someone to take away.  We can make sure that everything else we talk about comes back to and enforces this key message. 

The next thing is to then flesh out this message by planning learning objectives.  What are the 3 – 5 things you would hope that someone who has attended will be able to know/achieve after they leave.  These effectively are used to give you your beginning, middle and end.  Your learning objectives for sessions delivered to different audiences may be at a high level the same i.e. raise awareness of the work of a microbiologist. In order to maximise their effectiveness however you will need to tailor them for different audiences to ensure that they can be achieved i.e. talking about AMR will be different for lay pubic audiences versus researchers. This is where the specific and relevant components really come into play.  Everything you put into your session should be based around these learning outcomes in order to support the audience have a clear sense of direction with your overall message.

Remember who your audience are

If your message is going to land then designing your way of communicating it and the learning objectives with them in mind is key.  If you have an audience of 4 year olds then your method of communication is going to be very different to if you are talking to a room full of post graduate PhD students.  If you have a drop in 15 minutes with a large group at a science outreach stand you will need to have a very different method to if you have a small group for an hour as part of a workshop.  You also need to bear in mind whether these audiences are ones you have a relationship with because they’ve met you before, or are they a one off encounter.

When you are writing items like lay summaries for research grants and papers this is especially important.  Most lay summaries should be aimed at an audience with a reading age of 12.  You need to be very conscious of abbreviations and scientific terms that we may all use without even thinking about them.  There are some good websites that can be used to check wording and language, but even more simply you could ask a member of your family (or even ideally a lay focus group) to read through it and see what the message is that they take away vs the one you think they will take away. The same is true for verbal presentations as well. Think about the language you use and whether it invites the audience in or acts as a barrier for engagement.

Try out a metaphor or two

I’m presenting tonight at an AMR event and I have one slide to talk about my work.  The audience is likely to be mixed and I want to talk about the differences between phenotypic, fragment based sequencing and whole genome sequencing, and how different techniques are best in different circumstances. These are challenging concepts to describe in under 5 minutes and so I’ve picked something I think most people will be familiar with for them to hook their knowledge onto…………cake. A good metaphor puts your audience at ease as you are discussing something familiar. You are also able to take shortcuts in explaining some concepts as you are hooking new knowledge onto a pre-existing framework. Hopefully your audience will walk away with your message and if you’re really lucky as someone they will remember.

Take it one step at a time

No one wants to sit in a talk and feel lost or read an article that makes them feel stupid for not understanding it. It makes the person engaging feel bad about themselves. It also makes them disengage which can be distracting for the audience as a whole, depending on how they behave when it happens. I’ve been that person in immunology talks at conferences. I’ve been fully engaged and listening for 15 minutes and then the presenter either takes a step assuming knowledge I don’t have or I blink for a second and miss something and I spend the next 30 minutes with no idea what on earth is going on playing with my phone.

The lesson for me here is twofold. Make sure that every progression step your audience needs is present, you can rarely make assumptions about your audience. If the information is key to understanding the information to come, make sure you give it however briefly. This is where we come back to knowing your message and learning outcomes. By only having the info in your session that is essential to serve those you buy yourself time to spend on the blocks of info needed. The second lesson is to make sure you refer back to previous building blocks of info in your talk. That means that if someone misses something they are given a repeat opportunity to contextualise and understand prior to you moving on. It also means that you are embedding the previous knowledge because the next step builds upon it.

Know when to present yourself vs your CV

Connection between yourself and the audience is always key to getting your message across. There are times when, as much as I wish it wasn’t, that standing in front of an audience as a living version of your CV is required in order to be taken seriously. When establishing your credentials before you start communicating is key to your message being heard. At these moments I’m Dr Elaine Cloutman-Green who leads X and has Y amount of research funding. When you are trying to speak in a lot of other settings however it’s important to remember that credentials can in fact get in the way of the message you are trying to present. Remember it’s about the message and not about you. If I stand in front of audience to talk about science being for everyone and reel off my list of fellowships and leadership roles I have immediately moved myself into a box of ‘other’. Someone not necessarily like them, someone with different professional experience who doesn’t share their experiences and aspirations, someone that it is hard to connect with. When doing sessions like these I’m definitely not my CV, I’m Elaine or Girlymicro.

The best way to get better is to practice

As I’ve said I encounter people all the time who are so much better at all of this than I am and I’m always super attentive when I hear them speak, not just to hear their message but to also learn ways to do it better myself. There are obviously some people out there who are born great at this, but even they needed to learn and improve how they did it. The best way to do that is to practice. Write blogs and get involved in writing papers with others who you think are good at this. Try out thinking about messaging and designing learning objectives, until it becomes easier because you’re used to it. Most importantly practice talking to people, practice one on one conversations with those you supervise, with your colleagues who are in different disciplines and with your friends. See what bits interest them, which bits they respond to. Be brave and book in to do some outreach and volunteer to give that departmental seminar you’ve been dreading. Doing is in essence how we learn, you can only get so far by reading about something. Once you’ve had a go its then important to take the time to reflect in order to learn how to do it better next time.

The other key part of practicing and learning how to communicate better is to make sure that you are building evaluation into your sessions/activities. We often try to guess at what well, what audiences actually heard and what we could improve upon. Guessing is fine to a point but you will never have the backgrounds of everyone you are engaging with. The only way to really know what they are responding to, what worked well and what didn’t is to actually ask them. This is where the measurable part of your learning objectives is important. As scientists we respond well to data, it gives us concrete direction in which to improve. Lets apply that to the way we communicate so that we make the most of every opportunity, every moment, in order to succeed in getting our message across.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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