What a scientist learned from digital analytics

Early in April I found myself at a hotel in Downtown San Francisco, surrounded by experts in the field of internet marketing. I was not lost; I went there to learn how to be a better scientist. Let me explain.

Looking for industry examples of communicating with data led me to digital analytics. This branch of internet marketing relies heavily on data analysis and hypothesis-testing, which sounds like a scientist’s bread and butter.  Like scientists, analysts will be successful if they can demonstrate their approach is better than a gut feeling. Unlike most scientists, digital analysts routinely present quantitative data to non-technical audiences. And being part of  the marketing world, they take their presentations seriously. Continue reading

What’s your story?


As a scientist, your ability to tell a story is as important to your career as knowing how to design experiments. Of all the skills needed to successfully move from academia to industry, good storytelling may be the one that takes the most effort. If good science is the process of obtaining meaningful data, good science communication is using that data to tell a story. This story may be as simple as one chart that clearly shows a cause and effect relationship, or as complex as a scientific journal publication. Continue reading

Let’s bury the Powerpoint Murder Mystery

Jean-Luc Doumont has described some research presentations as mystery stories: The presenter has a result they want to share, but they don’t want to spoil it by telling the audience up front. After a brief introduction to the topic, most of the presentation is spent on methods, experimental details, and data. Finally at the end, they surprise the audience with the results, and wait for the expressions of awe. Consistently, this is never as intriguing as the speaker hoped. While there is growing awareness that scientists need to communicate better, the research presentation is remarkably resistant to change. I’d like to report that among many scientists, the Powerpoint Murder Mystery is alive and well. Continue reading

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. Continue reading