0) Why is it important to structure communications?

Often 6 months of work must be presented to a decision making board in only 30 minutes.  The decision makers may be busy or distracted and it's important to communicate as effectively as possible in the limited time available.  As a scientist, one is often tempted to present work as a story, with special attention given to the innovative methods developed to address the problem of interest.  Yet the audience may not be interested in the methods and if they do not grasp the relevance of the talk within the first few minutes, their minds may wander to other business or personal issues.

The purpose of this page is to provide guidance for communicating effectively.  Below is a list of questions to ask yourself as you start to prepare a document (e.g. presentation, report, or email) and an organizational structure for the document.

1) Questions to consider before preparing a document or presentation. 

  • Objectives:
    • What is the purpose of this presentation?
    • Why is this presentation important to you?
    • What actions or decisions do you expect afterwards?
  • Audience:
    • Describe your audience?  Who are the decision makers, influencers, and stakeholders?
    • What is their background?
    • What agenda do they have?
    • Why is this presentation important to them?
    • Do you expect any pre-conceived biases or opinions?

2) Template 

  • Situation: Explain the situation from the audience's perspective (1-5 sentences).
  • Problem: State the problem or question your work addresses (1 sentence).
  • Solution: State the solution - this is the main purpose of the communication (1 sentence).
  • Supporting arguments:  Make your case.
    • Generally, it's good to come up with 3 supporting points and keep them concise and organized. 
    • For scientific presentations, this can take the form of a logical, evidence-based argument (e.g Data, Methods, Results)
    • Try to use MECE (Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive) organization principles.
  • Next steps: What actions or decisions should happen next (1-2 sentences).

3) Template applied to a specific example

  • Situation: Students enrolled in my class have a variety of backgrounds and some will start out far behind the others.  It's important for those who are behind to get up to speed as fast as possible so that they can get the most out of the class and so that the class doesn't slow down for the other students.
  • Problem: How do I get my students up to speed as fast as possible?
  • Solution: As a first step, I will hold an additional hour of lecture on Friday to cover some of the background material.  
  • Supporting Arguments: For a short email, not much may be needed.  For a longer communication, this section may be the bulk of the document.
  • Next steps: Confirm that students will be able to come to class an hour early on Friday. 

4) Converting template to an email

Subject: Extra hour of lecture on Friday.

Dear students,

I'm very much looking forward to working with you this year.  I know that some of you enrolled in this class do not know all the necessary background material.  For that reason, I'd like to set up some extra time where we can work together so that I can get you up to speed as fast as possible with the rest of the class.  Therefore, I'll be holding an extra hour of lecture before class on Wednesday, where I plan to review X, Y, and Z.  Can you confirm that you'll be able to make this time?

Best Regards,

5) Choosing a communication method: email vs. face-to-face

Email, text message, and instant message is best when you want to:
  • Inform other parties of particular issues.
  • Ask a straight forward question.
  • Have a documented record of your communication.
Face-to-face, Skype, or phone-calls are best when you want to:
  • Influence the other party (need to read their reactions).
  • Emotions are involved.
  • You are dealing with a complex issue and there is risk of being misunderstood.
  • Avoid having a documented record of your communication.
6) Giving Feedback

When giving feedback, it's important to prepare by thinking carefully about your intentions and emotions and also your audience's intentions and emotions.  A guideline for communicating feedback is to:
  • Invite the other person into a conversation
  • Relate the conversation to a specific reason
  • Explain using examples what you observe and why it's problematic
  • Suggest a solution
  • Check in to understand the response
  • Plan on how change will be implemented.

7) Managing Difficult Interactions

  • Strive not to take things personally.  Figure out what you want to achieve from the interaction and think through the most efficient way to get there.
  • Honor your emotions by spending time alone or talking friends and mentors about them.  Don't respond to the difficult party in anger or frustration.  
  • Honor the difficult party's perspectives and emotions as well.  Seek to understand rather than to persuade.