IOP Institute of Physics

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Whisper it softly, but scientists don’t always have a great reputation as communicators.

It’s understandable enough when you think about it: scientists can get a bit wrapped up in their own theories and speculations, and are not always able to communicate those ideas effectively. But communication is a must if those ideas are going to live and breathe in the wider world, or get funding for that matter.

All of which is easy enough to say in principle, but how can you brush up on your communication skills in practice? 


TOP TIP: Know you audience. Your first thought in any sort of communication should be to put yourself in the shoes of the person or people you are communicating to.

With that in mind here are some general rules.

Rule 1: Keep it simple
When it comes to getting an idea across to someone might have very little understanding of physics, let alone your specialist area, short and sweet is the order of the day. If in doubt, do the elevator test – imagine you have to convince someone of the brilliance of your idea in the thirty seconds or so it takes to ride an elevator to the ground floor of a building. Try it out: do a practice run and time yourself if you have to. Do the same thing every time you have an idea or proposal you need to sell to people. The more you apply the elevator test, the more success you will have as a communicator. And be strict: if you can’t express all the fundamentals in thirty seconds, the chances are that people will simply drift off.

Rule 2: Mind your language
Jargon and acronyms come as standard in the academic world, but outside they simply turn people off. Avoid jokes and slang, too. If you’re trying to make a serious point, irreverence will inevitably detract from your message.

Rule 3: The medium is the message
Face-to-face, by phone, in a written report, by text, via email, on PowerPoint: nowadays we have a giddying array of mediums to make a point. So decide which medium will work best to convey your message. As a rule of thumb, it’s almost always better to speak to someone rather than sending a written message, especially if you’re relatively new in a job and want to establish yourself. Although you can probably make your point with greater clarity by email, the lack of context means your tone can easily be misunderstood. By going up and actually talking to someone you give yourself the chance to strike up a personal rapport. You can deal with any issues in a friendly, non-confrontational way and avoid a tetchy back-and-forth email debate.

Rule 4: Tread carefully
Yes, it’s terrible, but while office politics vary from workplace to workplace, they always play a part. Personality clashes mean working relationships which ought to go smoothly don’t. And while it’s clearly not your fault if others around you are at each others throats, remember that some people like to nurse a grievance. So do your best not to aggravate people, especially in the crucial first few weeks. If once you’re settled into your job you still find it difficult to get on with someone, try offering an olive branch. Get chatting to them in the kitchen or over lunch; talk about family, friends and outside interests and try to find some common ground. If you make an effort to make friends with people, office politics can go your way.

Rule 5: Be a social butterfly
Research suggests that people who spend time in the pub with their colleagues after work actually progress quicker in their careers – because they’re building up the sort of informal bond and rapport which is so useful when it comes to actual work. So see socialising as an investment in yourself.

And if you want more help to promote yourself among your colleagues and boost your career prospects, the Physicist’s Guide to Raising Your Profile (member sign in required) has lots more ideas.

To request a hard copy or large print version of this booklet, email

last edited: October 10, 2012

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