Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Transcript of the written version of my talk on Communication to IISc freshers, August 19, 2018

I am thankful to the Students' Council for inviting me to present this talk. The invitation letter I received on August 15, stated the following: `` Communication skills are essential for any scientist or researcher in order to be able to convey his/her ideas to the rest of the community. Writing research papers is also not an easy task and one needs to acquire the necessary skills to be able to write papers of an internationally acceptable standard. These two skills are often areas in which many scientists are found wanting, which makes a formal training in these aspects necessary.''

I promptly accepted the invitation by email, although I did not know how they even knew about me, and why they thought that I was the correct person to give this talk. The reasons could be that I recently gave a small presentation at the Memorial Meeting they organized for Stephen Hawking, and also because I am quite active on Facebook. Of course, I have been a teacher in IISc for over 21 years and do mix with students. By mentioning all these almost obvious things, I would like to draw your attention to the multiple aspects of communication that are already involved here. We live in an era of multiple modes of communication, personal as well electronic on a scale never known before. While 15 minutes is not a whole lot of time, I will not spend time on the general aspects of communication and of technical writing, but would rather concentrate on the specific problems that face us as people of India in these spheres, and how we can find solutions, and also in the setting of IISc.

Many of the problems that I will talk about are quite general but if you were to develop a sense of self-appraisal and self-awareness, you can solve them without too much difficulty. The first hit on google for the word communication gives the meaning `the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium.' One of the points that I would like to specifically draw your attention to is that communication is an Input-Output process. In technical parlance, there is a sender and a receiver for every message. It is important to put yourself in the shoes of the receiver and to ask critically whether your message has been received uncorrupted, or with the correct connotation, and that the connotation has not changed because of lack of clarity or due to ambiguity, or due plain and simple mistakes of transcription or enunciation. Furthermore, I would like to mention that communication skills includes both trying to understand what others are conveying, and to convey information in the most precise of terms.

Keeping in mind that we are a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic society, we must understand that idioms and nuances that one may be accustomed to in one's own milieu may not translate into the same in another's. It is important to have an open mind and to communicate in as simple and as universal terms as possible, especially since we in the Indian Institute of Science. For many of you, this may be the first instance of your leaving home and a protected environment, and you are facing the big bad world for the first time. Thus, you are facing multiple challenges and communicating under these circumstances can be quite a challenge.

Communication in a complex setting like in a laboratory or in a classroom, or in a hostel or in a gymkhana setting, includes not just verbal communication but also of body language, and other forms of non-verbal communication. Young people must learn to receive multiple signals and develop a sensitivity to the diversity of expression. The above said, communication between teacher and student, between supervisor and scholar are of special significance, indeed as are communications between fellow students, as well as with other members of faculty and the community. These can be quite different, and can be challenging. It is best to exercise caution in communication in such scenarii and it is also best to keep in mind that discretion is the better part of valour.

For purposes of scientific communication, one cannot overemphasize the importance of the English language. It is important to master oral as well as written English. A strong command of grammar and vocabulary are an integral part of communication. Let us note that communication is both auditory as well as visual. In terms of talks and presentations, there are now enormous resources for word processing, with all kinds of aids such as embedded movies, simulations, pictures, figures, histograms, pie-charts and so on. You could also communicate your work by posters, or on the internet via a blog or facebooks posts or on twitter or instagram. There are plenty of online guides on how to make presentations effective. In this context, you must keep in mind your audience and tune your message suitably. The level and complexity of ideas and presentation must be tuned keeping in mind the parameters of the technical ability of your audience and the training of the audience itself. You must learn to give talks first within your own groups and listen to one another critically and help one another.

In terms of oral communication, please do note that listeners will not always be patient with strong accents that they are not accustomed to. While there is no human being will not have an accent, each of us must make an attempt to have oneself understood. The purpose of language is be understood and to understand. It is a matter of training to achieve these goals and it is better to start early.

The crucial aspects of presentation skills are precision and economy. You must point out the state of the art of a particular research problem, and describe the novelty of your own work, and present the breakthroughs in your research. Practice makes perfect, and indeed you will not be able to give a good presentation or talk unless you are on top of your subject. In order to be top of the subject, one must go after it with great energy and dedication and commitment. Veterans in the subject can immediately figure out when a speaker knows what he or she is talking about, and are rarely fooled by fluff. It is the subject matter that will capture the moment, which must be the core of any presentation or talk or poster, but supplemented with excellent language skills. Note that future employers, as well as examiners are always impressed by sincerity and clarity. One aspect that I will emphasize here is that in science, it is best to be as honest and upfront as possible. To say `I do not know the answer' to a question is better than to hazard an unreasonable guess, or give an answer that the veteran listener would immediately know to be untrue.

Many of the principles enunciated above can also be translated effectively into technical writing. It is important to be concise and crisp, and to the point. You could imitate the style of Ernest Hemmingway who was the master of this. Let me again emphasize that in scientific writing, you are not competing in an essay writing competition. But rather you are writing in such a way that the reader and other members of the community are struck by the importance of your scientific work. Most papers today are organized along the lines of an abstract, introduction, formalism and state of knowledge, the new technique or equipment, results coming out of the new technique or instrumental measurements, modelling the data and interpretation, and validation in terms of a model or support to a new model or furthering a new model, followed by discussion and conclusions. Clarity and simplicity, along with precision and excellent language skills, without unnecessary verbiage will make a paper acceptable even to the most critical referee and reviewer. It is a good idea to never hide details, and be as upfront as possible with all the assumptions that have gone into your work. Being secretive and telling half-truths brings out the worst in reviewers and referees. Note that you will often be at the mercy of editors and referees and it is best to win them over to your side. Paying attention to detail and meticulousness will also assist in you getting your papers accepted.

Of great importance are Acknowledgements,where you honestly and truthfully acknowledge all those who have helped you. Of equal equal importance are the bibliography and references. This latter also requires a lot of devotion, in order to accredit to one's academic predecessors their due contributions. One of the things that I have observed in IISc in the generations of students that I am acquainted with is that they do not pay enough attention to the authors, whose papers they use and cite. It is not easy to remember names of those from other cultures and other countries, but it is an integral part of our work to cite the literature properly.

It is also worth developing good work habits, keeping an online diary or journal that you update every day, or couple of times a week, keeping track of your bibliography and making detailed notes on your work, be it laboratory work or your calculations, electronically or otherwise. When you want to actually put together all your work, this would come in handy. Also, developing a resource base of this type, would make your eventual thesis writing so much simpler. In order to meet the objectives laid out earlier, a lot of ground work and constant hardwork will come in handy, and will lead to a good use of your time.

Please note that DST has also advertised a scheme recently that encourages scholars to write about their work and popularize it. I quote from the blurb on the recently launched AWSAR programme: `` If you are a PhD scholar or a post-doc, you surely want to relate your work to the larger context of Science and Society and convey it to the people in a way that enhances their understanding, appreciation and excitement for science while giving you an opportunity (AWSAR) to maybe even win some cool prizes!''

With these words, I wish you all a great stay in IISc, lots of learning and lots of results, which I would like to see written up and talked about!

Some resources: See talk by Dani Or on `Introduction to Scientific Communication', and Caltech site that has a manual on principles of scientific writing.

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