10 basic rules and tricks for science communication

My op-ed in Le Monde triggered a lot of discussions, both online (mostly on Twitter), and offline, in the labs. In the days following its publication, I came across many people who read it, professionals researcher or not. I got a lot of feedback, which will probably trigger a few more blog posts. Here I want to touch upon one particular topic, which is the need of a basic training in the tools we use daily to communicate.

I mentioned in my oped (and previously in my blog post here) that most people seem to have very little knowledge and training in communication. I use the word communication in its broadest meaning here: both to look up and receive information’s, and to exchange and expose it. We’re talking emails, softwares, talks, social networks, etc. These tools are so ubiquitous today that for most people, the idea that you need to be trained to use it is just preposterous. Everyone knows how to type and hit the « send » button, right ? So don’t tell me I need to be trained. Sounds familiar ? And yet, my experience is that most people would greatly benefits a very basic training in all the tools, including the ones we take for granted.

Most people, unfortunately, needs to be convinced of this. So here are the two main benefits I can think of:

  • #1: time saving. We have only 24hrs in day and seven days in a week. Saving time is certainly a benefits everyone can understand. Nobody has enough time for nothing these days. Choose wisely how you allocate your time, and try to save as much as you can. Automating many of such tasks can save you a lot of time.
  • #2: getting your message across. Whether you’re writing a paper, exchanging over new ideas for a research proposal, or presenting your work at a conference, your main goal is to be understood, right ? If not, think twice about why you are coming to this conference/meeting/whatever else.

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend years to acquire a few very basic skills that will greatly benefits you. Here’s a list I quickly came up with to get you started in 1h or so. Whenever I have a new PhD student starting with me, I walk him (her) through this. So with no particular order, here we go:

  1. Use the « subject » field when you send an email. Sounds basic, right ? Be precise with it, « FYI » is not. Receiving email with en empty subject field is one of the thing that drives me really crazy.
  2. Check your email only once a day. I’m working hard to meet this. I routinely achieve checking email just twice a day. If there’s an emergency that you have to deal with, people will call you. Of course, disable the animation that comes with new emails arriving.
  3. Use rules to sort your emails. Many emails do not need your attention (receipts, admin stuff) and can be sorted directly in folders you can archive. I recently came across this neat filter to further filter spam: if email contains « if this email does not display properly ». More email etiquette rules here.
  4. Choose the right tools to write. Yes, there’s a life beyond Word, but too few people seem to be aware of it. I am now using Writer for all the steps from drafting to an almost final version. The only feature of Word I appreciate is the review mode, when collaborating on a paper.
  5. Use a citation management software. Life is too short to insert your references manually. You have terrific choices today (Mendeley, Zotero, Papers, Endnote, Refworks, etc.), Endnote is not ruling anymore. I settled on Mendeley a while ago. My two favorites features are (1) automatic bibtex file. Terrific if you’re a LaTex user and (2) automatically import the references in your library if you are opening a file with references inserted with Mendeley. This second feature is a killer when you are collaborating over a paper.
  6. When preparing your slides for a talk, keep in mind the following hierarchy: movie>picture>plot>text>table. Of course not everyone has the same constraints, depending on your domain.
  7. Use large font size. By large, I mean greater than 30 or 40. Academics have the tendency of occupying the latest seat rows in a conference. So you’d better use a large font. This will also force you to limit the number of words on your slide. I am now using text only for the title of the slide (if any, full screen micrograph are extremely effective), and to cite references of interest for the audience. The problem with text is that attendees will read it first, and then listen to you. Be kind, avoid unwarranted death by Powerpoint. You want them to listen to you, of course.
  8. When delivering a talk, use as much as 30% of your time to introduce the topic. Unless you are at a very specific conference where 100% of the audience comprises specialists, of course. Most of the speakers are jumping to the hardcore details of the methods on their second slide, loosing 80% of the audience. Your main goal should be to get the audience interested enough so that they will look it up after the talk.
  9. Automate your literature watch as much as you can. I settled on RSS a long time ago. I added two tools in this workflow recently: Google Scholar alerts, and Twitter. Google Scholar alerts are excellent to keep track of articles in your specialized field of interest. Google is updating its results daily, and you can get an email summarizing the recent additions. I also use it to keep track of new articles of selected people I’m following. Talking about that, now might be a good time to set up a Google Scholar profile, it is becoming a standard and provide visibility with a minimal amount of work, as Google will keep track of your papers (and your metrics) for you. It has become a very valuable tool to discover people, too. I use Twitter to keep track of the discussion in the twittersphere, among other things.
  10. Learn the basics of graphic design. I know, I know, you don’t have a lot of time, you’re busy doing research. Watch this 15 seconds gif, it will bring you a long way if you apply it.  Think about this: you spent years and 10k or 100k of $ for your research, weeks or months writing your paper, so there’s nothing crazy about spending a few days preparing nice figures for your papers and slides. And no, Paint is not a proper software for preparing your figures.
  11. A bonus one for you, since you spent a long time reading this post. To avoid email overload when you’re back from vacations, delete every incoming message and have an out of-the-office reply that says « I am currently on vacations and deleting every incoming message, to avoid death by email. If you’re emailing me something important, please send it again after XXX, once I’m back from vacations. Sorry for the inconvenience ». Unless you’re waiting for something extra-important, this will save you a lot of time. And you can always check the status of your submitted papers on ManuscriptCentral. Some companies are getting rid of email completely, so it’s not as absurd as it sounds, right ?

Do you have good ones to share ? Shout it in the comments.

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