Saturday, 13 February 2016

On effective communication: because it matters.

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about effective communication, party because there were 2 seminars last month at MIT about giving good talks (one by Patrick Winston, one by Jean-luc Doumont), party because we recently published a paper about what makes visualizations effective (for communicating messages), and partly because I've been TA-ing a research course for undergraduates (with a large communication component to it).

I'll summarize here some notes from the talks I went to, as well as my own thoughts and insights. Though I'm sure I'll have lots more to say on this topic in the future.

Patrick Winston started off his talk with the following statement*: "you (the researcher) will be judged first by your speaking, then by your writing, and finally by your ideas". This is a common phenomenon: a great communicator can sell you on the simplest ideas and make you see beauty in them; a poor communicator can obscure the most beautiful of ideas. Both examples regularly occur in lectures, in research talks, and in business presentations (but I'll focus on the researchers, here). It really is a shame when beautiful ideas don't come to light because the researchers behind them lack in explanatory artistry. It is an art, this whole communication business - which is why it is not commonly taught in a formal manner. Aside from the occasional seminar, the occasional resource exchanged among students, and the occasional tip given by one researcher to another during a practice talk, aspiring researchers (e.g. students) get no formal coaching and are told to "just do good work". Feedback and tips from advisors can be quite uneven, depending on the experience of the advisors themselves. (luckily, MIT professors are very good at selling their research, judging by the content on the front page of MIT news every morning; as Winston puts it: "your ideas should have the wrapping that they deserve")

The point is: many (esp. young) researchers need formal communication coaching, and often they underestimate how important it is for their careers (it pains me to hear yet another graduate student proclaim: "boy, these talks and posters I have to present are such a waste of my time"*). I would like to applaud MIT's initiative: the new EECS communication lab (and similar ones in other departments) for providing resources, training and advisors to students, when they need them. Additionally, I think MIT's SuperUROP course for undergraduates is a super valuable experience (essentially a how-to guide to being a researcher), where alongside a year's worth of academic research, students practice and receive feedback on important communication skills: writing research abstracts, proposals, and papers; performing peer reviews, creating academic posters, and giving research pitches and presentations. And yes, as a TA in the course, I sometimes hear the same excuses ("boy, all these written assignments are such a waste of my time, why can't I just do the research"). But when you're in an environment where industry representatives, senior researchers, and MIT faculty are following what you're doing (as is the case for these students), being able to sell your work can mean a lot for your future career. Last semester, for instance, the students participated in a large poster session, where they presented their work to all the aforementioned parties. I gathered some advice, common mistakes, and helpful suggestions in the linked-to set of slides.

* Yes, yes, groundbreaking ideas can speak for themselves, but I guarantee that most ideas need someone speaking for them (at least to get them off the ground).

Note that from one set of communication-related slides to another, from one talk to the next, the same kind of advice surfaces again and again. Most often, the views and suggestions presented are not idiosyncratic, but common, accepted, guidelines. We've all been in the audience: we know what catches our interest and what bores us to death (and it's often not the content to blame).

Let me summarize (and paraphrase in my own words) some of Winston's talk advice:

  • start with an empowerment promise: give your audience a sense that they will walk away with something (e.g. some newfound knowledge or ideas) from your talk, so they know what to look forward to and why they should care
  • get your idea out quickly, and cycle back: don't expect that all your audience members will follow along with you until the end, and do not leave the most important to last ("avoid the crescendo, just blurt it out"); come back to, and reinforce your points
  • use verbal punctuation: people fog out, so bring them back once in a while, especially to accentuate a switching of topics, slides, etc. (kind of like an "ehem, you can wake up now, even if you've missed the last few minutes, I'm starting a new thread..."); 
  • avoid near-misses: foresee what the audience could be confused about and clarify your contributions
  • what you end with is the last impression: make it count, clarify your contributions, show your audience what they're walking away with; and remember: the final slide will be there forever, "don't squander this real estate" (is your final slide the infamous and content-less "thank you"?)
  • whether a poster or a presentation, what should come clearly through are your vision, steps, and contributions (Winston even advocates naming the relevant sections/slides accordingly)
When approached once by a young researcher looking to get advice on his job-talk slides, Winston proclaimed: "too many slides and too many words"
"How do you know?" the researcher asked.
"It's almost universally true."
(Winston later added that allowing powerpoint to have less than 30-point font is probably Bill Gates' biggest fault. When text has to shrink that much, there is too much of it on the slides.)

This is the kind of advice that will come up again and again. People have the tendency to cram as much as possible into very small (spatial or temporal) frames. Researchers want to talk about all the great work they've done (not realizing that they're drowning out the most important parts). Students put all the details of their projects on their posters (not realizing that the contributions get lost). Here's my suggestion: do one pass of the content from which you want to pull slides/talking points, and extract the most important points. Sleep on it. Then pick the most important points out of your selection, and scrap the rest. Repeat. With enough cycles, you would have cleaned away the debris, exposing the shine of the main ideas.

What I like about Winston's communication advice is that he comes at it from the perspective of a scientist (he is, after all, a computer science professor at MIT). Sprinkled throughout his talk are technical references and examples. Most of all, he emphasizes the importance of projections - the way an idea or a piece of work is communicated to an audience: the context, the stance, the voice, the presentation style, all of it.

Another individual with a great technical take on communication advice is Jean-luc Doumont (got a physics PhD from Stanford). Jean-luc (he prefers to be called by his first name) consistently refers to the importance of increasing signal and eliminating noise in a presentation, whether visual or oral. This concept is ever-present in his book: Trees, Maps, and Theorems - which I highly recommend. 

Note that "noise" can refer to many things at once. In the case of presentations, the noise is everything that is tangential to your main points - it is the 'ums' and 'likes' in your speech, the nervous pacing and awkward hand fidgeting, the excessive details on your slides (do you really need your institute's logo on every slide?). In the technical writing, noise includes all the superfluous words (why say it in 10 words when you can say it in 3? why talk like a politician?).

With regards to maximizing signal, Jean-luc also talks about maximizing effective redundancy - which is to say helping to carry the message across despite noisy channels (those you have no control over, like the audience's attention or knowledge; whereas noisy channels that you do have control over should be minimized). Redundancy can be verbal or nonverbal. It can be complementary. For instance, your slides could contain your main points, but you're also there to describe them. If someone misses it in your speech, they see it on the screen*. You can also get the important messages across again later, in the same or different words (remember the cycling that Winston referred to?).

* This does not mean that what is on the screen should be what is said. The slides complement, not replace, the oral presentation. If people are spending all their cognitive resources reading your slides, they'll fail to process what you're saying, and that is where the communication breaks down. 

Jean-luc's three laws to optimize communication are:
  • first law: adapt to your audience
  • second law: maximize the signal to noise ratio
  • third law: use effective redundancy
(but remember: second law > third law)

When studying information visualizations (graphs, charts, plots, etc.), our research team also found that when given visualizations with redundant encodings - i.e. when the message was presented in a number of ways (as a trend line, as an annotation of the trend line, as a description of the plot, in the title, etc.), human observers were more likely to recall the message correctly (different people might need to see things presented in a different way). Conversely, too many extra details, unrelated visuals, or metaphors led to worse recall and confusion, in that observers might recall only a piece of the main message, or misremember it entirely. The take-away? Make your priority getting the signal across, scrap the rest. You can do so quite effectively using the title. Importantly, if your title contains your message, more observers will remember and recall it. 

Here's a little piece of advice that also tends to repeat: make your titles count. Be it the titles of talks, slides, section headings, visualizations/graphs. Jean-luc places a lot of emphasis on this in Trees, Maps, and Theorems. He gives great examples of how scientists often caption their plots something like "Y as a function of X", where it is clear that what is plotted is, by no surprise: Y as a function of X. You haven't told the reader anything new or useful! Consider instead using this valuable real estate to convey the message of the plot, such as "Y peaks when X is at its lowest value due to the effect of...". After hearing all of Jean-luc's examples of the way scientists title their slides, figures, etc., I got to thinking. It's true, they do! 

I have since tried to be extra careful about my captions, my titles, my paper section headings, even my e-mail subject lines (I guess the current generations get a lot of twitter practice). I try to limit the noise, to imbue as much of the written text with meaning as possible, to carry across the most important points. In fact, when writing my master's thesis, I wanted the essence of the whole thesis to come through the list of contents, figures, and tables. I wanted the reader to walk away with the outlines of the story without even getting to the introduction. 

Importantly, if the message can come across simply and quickly, that is not a bad thing. If there's an easier way to say something, why not say it? Jean-luc had great anecdotes at his lecture on "Communicating science to nonscientists" about how unnecessarily jargon-filled scientific communication can be. Here are a few of my favorite anecdotes (again, paraphrased):
  • After a room full of experts took turns describing their own research topics to each other, they were asked: how many of those descriptions did you understand? Less than half. How many do you still remember? Maybe a few. And this is a room of scientists! Moreover, they consider this normal. How many talks do you remember from your last conference? How many were engaging from start to finish? (maybe... 1?)
  • When researchers are asked to describe what it is they do, and when they get to any specialized vocabulary, they tend to say it faster and to lower their voice. It is like they are trying to limit us the pain of trying to understand them by saying it fast and low. But that is exactly the opposite of what we need in order to understand! 
  • A student shows Jean-luc a passage he has written. Jean-luc looks confused and asks the student to explain what he meant to say in the passage. The student says: "Well what I mean to say is [blabla]... but I just don't know how to say it." Well in the [blabla] was exactly the explanation!
Jean-luc advises scientists "not to write complicated out of the principle of revenge" (for other scientists who write this way). Do not try to prove to the whole world how complicated your research is. Define technical words, avoid jargon, avoid synonyms, write simply. Provide reference points, comparisons, and examples. Give the why before the what.

I'll leave you on my favorite Jean-luc quote from Trees, Maps, and Theorems: "Effective communication is getting messages across. Thus it implies someone else: it is about an audience, and it suggests that we get this audience to understand something. To ensure that they understand it, we must first get them to pay attention. In turn, getting them to understand is usually nothing but a means to an end: we may want them to remember the material communicated, by convinced of it, or ultimately, act or at least be able to act on the basis of it."

And getting messages across first and foremost requires caring about the importance of getting those messages across. It is about recognizing and believing that effective communication matters. It is about adjusting your habits, your jargon, the amount of content on your slides, your projection, your figure captions and titles, and most importantly your awareness of all these things. Happy communicating!


  1. I can't agree more! Check out this article on 'sins' in computer science and math papers: I found it really helpful even though I'm in a different field.

    Do you have any go-to resources on good writing/presentation skills?

    1. Thanks for sharing! Any go-to resources I could think of very linked among the blog post :)
      Like Jean-luc's book and his videos, Patrick Winston's presentation, a few extra resources and slide links here and there (look for the gray text) :)