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The Science of Good Communication

Whether for a job interview, a presentation or at a networking event, good communication skills are an invaluable asset to any career-minded person. As a member of the Life Science ecosystem, it can be easy to dismiss the importance of effective communication. In the scientific world, whether in academia or industry, the focus is rarely on the “soft skills” of interpersonal aptitude, but rather on the “hard skills” such as technical capabilities and theoretical knowledge. This focus on résumé checkmarks rather than personability leads to an unfortunate imbalance in the scientific workforce, with capable people missing out on vital opportunities due to a lack of connection.

As a scientist, used to facts, data and set protocols, it can be easy to sideline enhancing your communication skills, dismissing the endeavor as a superfluous addition to your already considerable employee skill set. Contrarily, effective communication is key to success in Life Science. Whether you are a CEO, researcher or intern, working on your ‘soft skills’ will likely be a determining factor for many of your failures and successes. At Turnstone, we have seen many start-ups, with brilliant concepts, fail because their pitch didn’t attract any investors. We have seen established companies stall, and lose focus, because management failed to work together towards a common goal. We have worked with academics fighting illogical regulatory decisions because the politicians behind the changes didn’t understand the underlying science or implications of their decisions. All these scenarios, though very different, have one thing in common; they could have been changed through more effective communication. What we do is mentor our clients so that they can tackle their next challenge with a complete toolbox of communication strategies. Here are a few of our top tips for successful communication in the life sciences.

“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” - Ira Glas

Wired for tales

Thousands of years ago, before anyone had ever thought of forming shapes out of sounds and putting them on a clay tablet, people told stories. Young and old, man and woman; information was shared in the form of a tale. Basic knowledge, such as how to make fire or what berries were edible, was a matter of life and death. Therefore, if you didn’t listen to the stories, or tell them very well, your genes were quickly but decisively removed from the gene pool by a ruthless mother nature. This natural selection, over thousands of years, led to the evolution of a bipedal, toolmaking and conversational animal with a strong predilection for storytelling. All those years of evolution produced people that were so expert at telling tales, our modern brains are actually hardwired for it.

“Communicating with human beings is not logical, it’s biological.” – John Bates

In today’s society, we are no longer sitting around a campfire wondering what animals to hunt. Nonetheless, the same storytelling that allowed our ancestors to survive in harsh preprinting press days still influences our everyday lives. Our brains exhibit a fundamentally different reaction to information if it is presented simply as data or woven into a tale. This is because, when listening to someone speaking in a non-narrative way, there are only two parts of our brains that light up on an MRI: Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. These language centers of the brain allow us to process the meaning of words, but not much more. If, however, we are listening to a person telling a tale, scientists have discovered that the whole brain lights up, with neurons firing in everything from our sensory cortex, frontal lobe, all the way down to our primeval limbic system. We don’t just hear the words, we experience them; as a result, we are far more likely to remember and care about the information we’re given.

“People will forget the things you do, and people will forget the things you say. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

Spin me a story
So, how does one tell a good tale? We’re not all born an Aesop or a Shakespeare, and unfortunately storytelling is neglected in the majority of institutionalized education systems. There is good news though: just as a person is biologically predisposed to react to a story, so too are we all inherently adept at producing one.

We are all innately aware when a story is bad, but there are many different elements that make one good. Experts and gurus from all around the globe will tell you that they have found the perfect equation of just the right factors in just the right order; the truth likely lies somewhere in between these many different opinions. At Turnstone, we would like to follow a few simple steps to get our clients’ stories right. These steps are, in simplified yet faithful form, as follows:

1. Introducing your character and setting the scene
 This does not mean “Hi, I’m John Smith and I work for Big-brand Company in Belgium.” Instead, this is where you engage your audience’s senses and immerse them in your world. The character can be anything from yourself to your company or even your product. Think creatively.

2. Pique their curiosity through conflict
No story is complete without a hook. The way you achieve this hook is by presenting the audience with some sort of a problem that needs solving. The problem can be a question, or a tough challenge the character had to overcome. Leave your audience wondering: “what happens next?”

3. Resolution and the take-home message
When you have reached the conclusion of your tale, where the conflict is resolved, make sure that your audience is crystal-clear about what the purpose of your story was. Whether your take-home message is “hire me”, “fund us” or simply “look at this cool data”, you have to be sure to end on a strong note.

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