Communication is key

Written by Lyndsey Armes, BS  in biology candidate at University of Kentucky and participant in the 2019 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track

Many researchers will tell you that they decided to go into a specific field because of their love for the subject matter, their curiosity, or their desire to fill critical knowledge gaps. What is less often discussed, and what many fail to realize before immersing themselves in the research world, is that communication skills are paramount for making these efforts worthwhile. Knowledge gained from research cannot benefit others unless it is effectively and broadly shared.

The seminar on research communication helped students understand the necessity of communicating research to a broad audience

In her talk about properly communicating research, Karen Dodson, WashU professional development manager, spoke at length about targeting communication strategies to your audience. Talking to your grandma about your work, sharing your team’s plans with investors, and developing an abstract for potential publication in a journal all require very different communication styles. Dodson did, however, make sure to emphasize one key point that applies to all communication efforts: “Less is almost always more.” Scientific writing and communication should be concise, making the necessary points without flowery, unnecessary expressions.

When Dodson first started talking, what she said sounded simple enough to do. Speak in terms your audience will understand. Cut out unnecessary explanations. Tailor your abstract to fit the journal you are submitting it to. Share your ideas broadly. Got it, easy, no problem.

Then, she had us complete an exercise that put my undue confidence to shame. Dodson wanted us to take our research elevator pitches and cut them down to 10 seconds. She explained that we should be able to communicate the main points of our work, in a way that anyone could understand, in that short of a time span. I struggled and, quite frankly, thought it would be impossible to properly communicate our work in a time span shorter than how long it takes to microwave a burrito. Eventually, after much prodding, I was able to come up with a pitch that hit all of the main points of what our research team is working on this summer.

Overall, this seminar helped me redefine what good research communication means to me. People, especially those outside of the public health/scientific community, do not need to be immediately bombarded with every statistic, thought process, or result that makes your team’s work relevant. These conversations should start off with the basics, leaving room for further explanation and discussion if the other party is interested.

Developing these good, two-way communication practices will continue to become more and more relevant due to the shift toward private sector research funding.