If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
Good communication is valuable in most fields and professions, but in the life sciences, it is critical. Mistakes, errors, and confusion can waste valuable research funds and time as well as threaten lives. Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer captured this sentiment well in Scientific American, noting “to be a successful scientist, you must be an effective communicator.”
As medical and regulatory writers and practitioners, pharmaceutical researchers, and other life scientists in today’s increasingly global, interconnected world, you must be prepared to address your findings to an international and interdisciplinary audience, effectively conveying not just the broad scale of your results and processes, but also the intricate details.
So, what exactly does good scientific communication entail?
1. Good communication is clear, coherent, and comprehensible.
What is comprehensible, of course, depends on the audience, but an effective communicator seeks first to understand her audience and gears explanations to an appropriate level. In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discussed “the curse of knowledge”: the better you know something, the harder it is to remember what terms and concepts are in fact jargon!
Even when you are writing for the FDA or a specialized audience, your language must be clear and coherent. Not only does this affect your chances of an application being approved or an article being published, but it also determines whether you earn the grant or sponsorship that will fund your research in the first place. Even at meetings within their own scientific field, scientists have reported that they don’t understand more than half of the lectures they hear. Be mindful of what you are trying to say and whether your intended audience will immediately understand it.
2. Good communication is correct and precise.
Misstating any aspect of your procedures or your results—whether due to a mistake, typo, misrepresentation, or misunderstanding—can spell the difference between a successful career and humiliation. We don’t need to tell you that a misplaced decimal point in a dosage can be the difference between an effective drug treatment and a fatality.
3. Good communication is compelling and persuasive.
The very point of writing or speaking about your work is to compel someone else to act. Good communication convinces regulators to approve drug applications, persuades sponsors to fund projects, and drives colleagues to try an approach or further an area of scientific inquiry. Remember that the point of your knowledge is to achieve some result, which you can likely do only through persuasively communicating your results to someone else.
While he wasn’t discussing science specifically, Greg Satell explained this concept beautifully in Forbes: “We tend to treat knowledge and communication as two separate spheres . . . as [if] expertise [were] a private matter, attained through quiet study,” while communication is “relegated to the realm of the social, a tool we use to interact with others of our species.” Integrating these two spheres is the key to getting things done in science or any field.
Today, science is under attack from some surprising fronts. Many people profess not to “believe” in science, making it all the more important that scientists communicate openly, rationally, and effectively. To do so, we must understand both our own fields and our audiences so that we can speak and write clearly, coherently, correctly, and compellingly. Here at Microsystems, we believe you should expect the same excellence from your document tools and technology—because effective communication cannot happen without support.