PhD Problems: You Have Trouble Communicating “On the Level”

An experience with Kip Thorne taught me how to communicate tough concepts to different audiences.

“Insights into the caustic structure of a camera’s past light cone when it is near a black hole, and how those caustics affect gravitationally lensed images,” the email said.

If your communications make you sound like a Star Trek character when they don’t have to, you’re going to alienate people.

I was writing a review of the movie Interstellar, and because he was one of my favorite Caltech professors when I was there, I’d reached out to Dr. Kip Thorne, who you may know as a recent Nobel Laureate. Among his many accomplishments, he had been a driving force and executive producer on Interstellar, and I wanted a quote for my article about what he found most exciting about the high science in the film.

I’d expected a reply to the tune of, “helping the actors talk about science convincingly,” or “using Hollywood computers to render a scientifically-accurate black hole.” Instead, he replied with collegial respect and talked to me like a fellow scientist. It was flattering, but it also meant I had to add another 500 words to the article just to explain what it was he meant.

This story is one of my favorite examples of scientists going over the heads of an audience. Kip meant well — it was wonderful of him to reply to me at all — but there was no way I could just use that quote on its own. Most of my audience wouldn’t get it, and those who would get it would be friends of mine who already know Kip. Even on a personal level, I had to do some work to make certain that I understood it.

I needed to find a way to communicate what Kip meant to help my audience understand what excited him. I couldn’t ask my readers to take five terms of physics classes at Caltech like I did, just to enjoy a review of a movie. That wouldn’t be fair and it would be damned arrogant. Instead, my responsibility was to help them to learn something and to make what Kip said accessible to as many people as possible — especially people who did not have the same educational opportunities that I have been afforded. Also, I needed to keep the article under 2500 words.

This required a skill that is essential for nearly all PhD work outside academia, and a good bit of work within it. To make people understand things that you only understand through years of training is no easy task. To do it without insulting or boring your audience can be even more difficult.

A key element of this skill is to be able to read your audience, often without even seeing them. You have to determine who is likely to be a part of your audience, and what the extremes of knowledge in that group may be. You should have a goal of minimizing the boredom of those who are familiar with the topic, but also ensuring that no one feels like their lack of knowledge is an obstacle to learning from you. Always have your audience in mind as you communicate.

Another important element of this skill is to assess what knowledge is really essential to understanding what you are trying to communicate. Not every fact is essential to understanding even the most complex messages. I did not really need to explain what a “past light cone” is in order to give insight to Kip’s comment, for example. All I really needed to do was explain that the high gravity of a black hole affects how light moves through both space and time, especially close to the hole. That’s complicated enough without discussing how physicists believe that events propagate ripples into both the past and the future, don’t you think? And while that second concept is amazing, you can understand the punchline without my having to rewrite A Brief History of Time in my film review. What Kip wanted to get across was this: the movie allowed him to envision, using Hollywood computers, what a real black hole might look like to a camera on a space probe, given all the weirdness of time and space near the black hole. That’s how I calibrated the message to my audience. I gave them the human impacts, and bottom-line meaning to care about, without the theoretical physics lecture.

The black hole from the film is not just pretty; it’s also a faithful approximation of what it might really look like close up. Communicating that is a real challenge!

Calibrating a message to an audience relies on calibrating what the audience needs to know so that they can gain whatever it is they are supposed to gain from the message. Really, this is the only thing that you need to do in order to communicate at the right level for that audience. If you are worried about what people need to know, you are less likely to go over their heads. You are also less likely to bore them with extra words and pointless asides.

This is not so much dependent on your ability to explain things or to be articulate. Instead, it has more to do with empathy, and how well you understand your audience — as well as the effect your words have on them. This is true in writing articles and emails, but also true in giving presentations, attending meetings, or just having conversations with coworkers. Think about who you’re communicating with, and tell them only the things that give them something towards their objectives for the communication. If you are emailing a project manager, you don’t need to tell them why your research project is coming in under budget — just that it is! A physician asking about a medical device you invented doesn’t need to know how the first prototype performed in your first mouse experiment — not when you’ve completed all your human trials and received approval. Sharing these things, interesting though they may be, is going to waste people’s time, and that’s both selfish and insulting.

Even worse can be telling people things that they already know, which can project a sense of arrogance. As can telling people that they would not understand something that they’ve asked about.

This abuts another common PhD problem: the sense that whatever you happen to be doing is of great importance and everyone you work with wants to hear about it. This might have been true in a world of academics with deep curiosity about the field that you work in, but in the business world there are people for whom what you do, and what they do, is just a job. They certainly want to do well with their work, but they have more going on and may not have time for the rumination and conversation that are common in academia. This is another reason it is important to ask, “Does this person need to hear this?”

Not every PhD has trouble with this, but many do. At the end of the day, a lot of the solution is in an understanding and empathy for the audience with which you’re communicating. There is a way to engage with your message that does not require every little detail, and finding that method makes the difference between a movie review that belabor a destructive interference from light moving backward in time versus a review that explains a simple idea that fascinates a world-class physicist: due to these effects on time and space, a picture close up to a black hole is likely to look very strange, and Interstellar offered the chance to use Hollywood computers to imagine what a space probe would see if it ever got close to one. I think that showing just enough details to capture that fascination connects better with an audience, but choosing that narrative was the result of work, care, and empathy for the reader. All of these are lessons that can help PhDs survive and communicate outside of academia.

The “PhD Problems” articles are a series on making the jump from advanced academia into business. The rest are available in my Medium feed.

You can find more from me, John Skylar, at www.johnskylar.com/writing.

Virologist, author, damn fool. Also found at www.johnskylar.com and www.betterworlds.org. Opinions my own, impressions yours.

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