Communications for Data Scientists
Soft skills are overlooked in data science, but they are just as critical for a successful data scientist.
Vin Vashishta | Originally Published: December 3rd, 2017
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A mentor of mine would often ask me, “Did you say that for you, or did you say that for the rest of us?” There are 2 reasons people speak: for self-comfort or for communication. The realization that not all speech achieves the purpose of communication is a vital first step in honing your ability to communicate effectively. As a data scientist, you are going to need highly polished communication skills.
You’ll be presenting to some of the best and brightest people in the business. These are people you will need things from like funding for additional research, buy in for data science initiatives, cooperation to source data, and enough trust to adopt the final product. For someone who ineffectively communicates their thoughts, that’s nearly impossible. Data science fails in a vacuum or silo. Success depends on being able to evangelize the benefits and share the work products with a diverse business audience.
I hear a few responses to this concept like, “Shouldn’t the work speak for itself?” or “That’s what data viz is for, right?” For data science to thrive in a business, people outside of the data science team need to understand, trust, and be willing to get their hands dirty. The work standing alone or an amazing visualization, won’t achieve that goal. However, a strong communicator will.
Start with a goal. Build a plan to achieve that goal. Execute. Communications follow the same flow as any other successful endeavor so let’s start with defining a goal. Why are you speaking? The answer to that question takes the form of communication objects.
Communication objectives are sound bite sized messages, that when strung together, summarize the information that is absolutely essential for you to communicate. They are also a set of talking points for you to fall back on to avoid distraction from what you’re working to communicate. If you feel the presentation straying from your core communication objectives, it’s simple to return to them.
An example of communication objectives is:
1 communication objective is ideal and 7 is a hard maximum for any presentation. Obviously different presentations and mediums will vary greatly with respect to this limit. Email or messaging is a great example of a single communication objective medium whereas a formal presentation or speech can be used to communicate closer to the max of 7 objectives.
If you find that a presentation has more than 7 communication objectives, split it into multiple parts. If you find that an email has more than 1 objective, pick up the phone. That’s a common theme of communications. Either change the medium or split the communications into parts when it starts getting too dense for the current medium. For example, if this blog post had more than 4 communications objectives, I’d either break it into 2 parts or change it to a YouTube video.
Also think about how complex the materials are. Highly complex communications objectives are better suited to in person presentations. Complexity also requires the number of communication objectives to be dropped in most cases. Attention spans are limited so use your time wisely.
The goal is very you centric. This is what you want to communicate. The second part has very little to do with you because you’re not talking to yourself. Remember the question my mentor would ask me, “Did you say that for you or did you say that for the rest of us?” Most efforts at communication fail because the presenter has fashioned the communication in a self-centered bubble.
The reason why attention spans are so short is because your audience has a lot going on in their heads. You’re competing with the last/next meeting, evening plans, their current assignment, etc. The first thing you must do is establish why they should be listening to you.
Often my audiences don’t know me, so someone they are familiar with will introduce me. It’s a transference of authority. My introduction is known and respected by the audience. When that person recites my credentials and accolades it’s better accepted by the audience. This is an excellent way to quickly gain trust and buy yourself a few minutes of attention.
Other times I’m left to my own introduction. It’s important to have this so well-rehearsed that it’s second nature to rattle off. If you’re choking on your credentials, that’s almost as bad as getting your name wrong. Luckily the title of data scientist is typically impressive enough to establish trust. However, I’ve given a talk to a room full of people who had no clue what a data scientist is. It’s painful, but sometimes you’re going to have to call yourself an AI expert. Try not to wince when that happens.
In written mediums, an introduction is just as important. If your reader(s) aren’t familiar with you, take a line or 2 to introduce yourself and establish trust. If you can get an introduction, that’s always the best way to go.
It’s important to understand how little time you’ve bought yourself. You have between 1 and 3 minutes of attention after a solid introduction. You need a plan to extend that attention span, so you can achieve your communication objectives. This has a lot to do with your target audience and their motivations.
Spend the time to understand who you will be speaking to. At work, get to know your audience by asking around or getting to know the people. For a conference, ask who their target audience is or what kinds of people attend? Never hesitate to ask people what their interest is in the topic? If you can avoid it, don’t assume or generalize when it comes to motives.
Look back at my communication objects. The first and second objective give specific benefits. These are geared towards my normal target audience, senior leadership and the c-suite. What motivates them in a business setting? They’re given goals at the beginning of the year. Sometimes those are revenue targets and for others those are engagement targets. My primary communication objects line up with how they are judged at the end of the year. This draws a clear line between my presentation and their objectives. That’s bought me a few more minutes of attention.
With that renewed attention, I’m going to deliver the costs and how long it will take. Then I move to give them a clear recommendation or call to action. In under 10 minutes, I’ve established trust, aligned my goals with my audience’s, and delivered a clear recommendation.
The rest of the presentation is aimed at answering the audience’s questions that I can anticipate. This is an important part of making your presentation audience centric. Think about what they will need clarification on. Especially focus on answering questions they may be embarrassed or hesitant to ask you. Stack the most important points at the start because you’ll be losing the audience by the minute.
Listen to questions. Don’t assume you understand them. Ask for clarification on broad questions or intent for questions that seem to come out of left field.
People ask questions for a number of reasons. Sometimes they want to appear knowledgeable in front of the crowd. Some want to trip you up to make them look good. Others have an agenda they want to insert into the presentation. Trolls are everywhere. Remember your communication objectives. Tie your answers to one or more of your communication objectives to avoid these bear traps. Don’t take any question personally and don’t respond to anyone who tries to make it personal.
Other questions are meant to help you. They may sound like challenges, but often an audience member is giving you an opportunity to clarify a point that may not have landed or offer additional evidence for a point that didn’t come off as well supported. Listen and always return to your communication objectives.
If an audience member makes a good point, acknowledge it even when it runs contrary to your communication objectives. Especially in business, there’s no such thing as a bullet proof case or bullet proof evidence. Uncertainty, big or small, is a fact of life. If you show that you’re interested in a comprehensive discussion of the facts, you are far more credible than someone who ignores relevant, alternate perspectives.
The QandA part of the presentation is where a lot of presenters lose control. Remember, this is your time. Don’t be afraid to remind the audience of that when multiple meetings break out or if someone tries to hijack the presentation. Ask for respect from your audience and ask those who can’t give it to you to leave.
Build communications to accomplish your objectives. Communicate to accomplish your audiences’ objectives. Respect your audience enough to make the communication relevant and well-polished. Demand your audience respect the time and effort it took to share this information with them.
As a data scientist, you need to effectively communicate highly complex topics to peers as well as senior executives. They expect your communication skills to rise to the occasion.