Communication: the most important thing you learned to do badly

Most students would be surprised that the term “academic” can have a negative tone in industry. But it’s true – and one place it often gets used is in describing research presentations. For people trained in academia who want to apply their skills to industry, finding a good way to describe their academic experience can be hard. I’m not talking about slide layout or presentation style – I’m talking about the message. The general rule in communication, accepted everywhere outside research institutions, is KISS, for “keep it simple, stupid.” That’s harder than it sounds when you’re surrounded by people who have made their careers by studying complex fields in great detail. One consequence is that you get credibility by describing your work in all its complexity, it great detail.

Now imagine you’re in a place where you need to communicate what you’ve accomplished to people other than your professors and colleagues – like the rest of the known world. Chances are, you’ve never had to design a presentation for people outside your field, let alone non-scientists. But most likely those are the people who will be your colleagues and managers. There may be a small portion of them who are impressed by someone rattling off chemical terms like the ABCs and won’t think it necessary to understand what you’ve been doing all those years in the lab – those are not the people you want to work for.

For every presentation, whether it’s a slideshow or just part of an interview, it’s useful to think what the other person wants to find out. Using what you learned about presenting to academics, you will certainly sound educated. But what a potential employer wants to know is not whether you are educated, but whether the skills you’ve learned and your personal qualities will be a good fit with their team. And at the end of your detailed presentation, probably a shortened version of your thesis defense, the audience will not have gained an appreciation for your research and their questions about you will not have been answered. The only thing they will know for sure is that you are good at confusing people.

As an example, the one-sentence summary of my post-doctoral research used to go something like: “I functionalized hydrogel polyelectrolytes with boronic acid groups to detect saccharides based on charge modulation at nanopore surfaces.” That was the simple version, of course – I was afraid to “dumb it down” anymore  because then, how would anyone be able to tell how much I knew? After a few years of experience on “the outside,” my message is different – I might say “I prepared new materials to detect sugars.” Then wait. And depending on who I’m talking to, one of two things will happen: If the person wants more technical details they will ask – what materials did you make? What techniques did you use to characterize them? And so on. Of course, I have detailed answers, seeing as that’s my specialty. But just as often, the conversation will move on – because the person wants to get to the things that matter to them – how do I work as part of a team, can I stay on task and work efficiently, and so on.

If you’d like to work on communicating your research to make it meaningful to potential employers, or anyone else, here’s something to do. First, make a 15-minute presentation summarizing your work assuming the audience knows nothing of the background. Omit all figures and graphs that look like they belong in a scientific journal – they won’t help you here. Also lose any language that is above an 8th-grade level. Don’t worry about it being too simple. The only people who will criticize you on that front are in the university – and they will never see it.

Practice until you can give the presentation to someone without looking at your slides. Why? Because the next step is to find someone who knows nothing about what you do, preferably a grandparent or a twelve-year old, and deliver it to them. You’ll want to watch the face of the person you’re talking to the whole time. Are they confused? Bored? Interested? When you’re done, ask them to describe the main points to you. When they can clearly understand what you’ve done and why, so will your future employer.

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