Should you become a STEM communicator?

Science communicationsFor many people who work in STEM, and especially those in research, science communications or ‘scicomm’ has become an essential part of their job. But if you’re not already engaged in scicomm, should you start?

Why communicate science?

Science is in demand: Journalists are always looking for stories, politicians and campaigners need information to develop policy, fellow citizens want to understand the world around them, and entrepreneurs are looking for new products. STEM research has never had such a wide and varied audience.

On the other side of the coin, STEM institutions are realising that clear and accessible communication of their research is essential to building good relationships with – and gaining the approval of – their communities. Funders are also seeing the value, and frequently request that grant applicants explain how they are going to communicate their findings to stakeholders and the public. And employers, whether in academia or industry, increasingly recognise the importance of scicomm skills and will look for, and expect to find, evidence of STEM communication on your CV.

And of course, many people who add a communications angle to their work find it affirming and enjoyable, and it reminds them of why they went into STEM in the first place. So if you want to expand your skillset and make your CV more attractive, it’s certainly worth acquiring some scicomm skills.

Where to start?

The first and most important think that you need to decide is who you want to talk to. Who is your audience? Are you talking to colleagues, other scientists in your field who use the same jargon and who are already familiar with the ideas and concepts you want to discuss? Or do you want to be more of an advisor, sharing information with those who lack it and seek it, for example, the panel members of a parliamentary enquiry who need explanations in everyday language? Or would you prefer to be talking to the general public, demystifying your area of expertise, putting current affairs into context, and helping people understand the research being published in your field?

The kind of STEM communications you want to do, the audience you want to address, and your relationship with them will change where you start and how you develop your new skills. Getting the roles and relationships right is the first step to effective communication.

Deciding on your strategy

So, consider these questions when you face a STEM communication challenge, and keep your answers in mind as you prepare. Even for the simple task of giving a talk, you need to know:

  1. What is the purpose of the exercise and of my contribution?

It could be educating, advising, campaigning, developing policy, lobbying, pitching, selling, entertaining, sharing or listening, or some combination of these.

  1. Who am I talking to?

Are they older or younger, senior or junior in rank, experts in your subject or not, preparing for exams, personally affected, knowledgeable and passionate activists, people who share your values or hold different ones … ?

  1. What kind of space and size of audience will I face, and for how long?

A small group around a table for two hours, a lecture hall full of people for 40 minutes, or science festival participants should they choose to stop at your stall for a minute or two?

  1. What is my role on this occasion?

Are you an expert armed with facts, an advocate aiming to persuade, an advisor offering suggestions, or a fellow citizen looking to share knowledge and learn from others?

Once you have clear answers to these questions, your communication strategy will emerge.

For example, imagine that you are an engineer, and you have been asked to visit a school to meet 12 teenagers who are thinking of studying engineering.  You will be expected to advise them, but also to keep them entertained (they expect both of these from adults in their school). You can find out from the school what stage of their education they have reached (what choices are still open to them?), and what their cultural backgrounds are (are family members likely to be professionals?). You have been given a slot at a lunch-break – 40 minutes, after the students have eaten (they may be wishing they were outside). You are an expert with experience (and so can offer stories about the exciting and important jobs you and your friends do), but you also want to be a possible future colleague for the young people (so you are accessible and congenial). You are different from them now, but you are inviting them to become your equals, and so you make that seem possible.

Sharing your expertise, and learning from others

STEM professionals are valuable to society because of their expertise. It is their job to know about their subject, and to recognise that other people reply on them for this knowledge. But at the same time, where many people are affected by the outcomes of scientific knowledge, we should recognise that their own expertise and experience that may contribute to better understandings overall, and to more cohesive and equitable collaborations between science and society.

Developing communications skills and confidence, whether that’s in public speaking, writing, podcasting or media appearances, will help you develop your broader STEM career. Many learned societies provide training, and there are plenty of courses and resources available online. Talk to people who have had some practice and learn from them. Find out about your local science festival and offer to help. Read science blogs, listen to podcasts, follow science communicators on Twitter or Facebook, and think analytically about what you see and hear – what was fun, what was interesting, what was clearly explained (and how)?

Start a Twitter account, Facebook page, blog or podcast and remember that like all skills, communication takes practice. Dive in. You will probably enjoy it, and so will your audience. Your CV will benefit too.

By Jane Gregory.

Five productivity hacks to kickstart your day

If you’re struggling to get your work days off on the right foot, then these five tips will help you rethink and prioritise your To Do list, and give you some tools for tackling even the most mundane of tasks.

Refine your ‘To Do’ list

To Do lists are possibly the oldest productivity tool we have, and many words have been spilt about exactly how best to maintain them. There are countless apps and websites to manage them, a lot of which let you set an incredible level of detail for each task such as allotting it to a project, adding a deadline, and defining multiple statuses that each task might progress through. The dirty truth is that it doesn’t really matter which app you use, or whether you prefer to rely on pen and paper, so long as you actually keep your list up to date and refer to it regularly.

Equally, amongst all To Do list tips, there’s only one that’s truly essential: Each to do item must be a single, well-defined task that can be executed without requiring further clarification. So ‘Write report’ is not a task, but ‘Draft report structure in bullet points’ is. Quite often, if you’re looking at your To Do list and feeling overwhelmed by it all and unsure where to start, it’s because you have written down a list of projects, not a list of tasks.

Luckily, the fix is relatively easy: rewrite your list and make sure that each item is a single action that you have clearly defined and could begin without needing to think further about what it means.

Urgent vs Important

Rare is the person whose To Do list isn’t, to all intents and purposes, infinite. As soon as you finish one thing, something else pops up to take its place. There is no end, let alone an end in sight. Equally true is that not all of the tasks on your list are actually worth doing, but how can you tell what you should focus on, and what you should ditch (or get someone else to do)?

Urgent vs important matrixOnce your To Do list has been rewritten, you can use the Urgent vs Important Matrix, or Eisenhower Matrix, to prioritise it. List your tasks in a two-by-two grid, classifying each task by whether it’s urgent or not urgent, important or not important.

Your main priority should generally be those tasks that fall into the urgent and important quadrant. Tasks that are not urgent but are important are next in line, or should be scheduled so that they don’t become urgent. Tasks that are urgent but not important need a bit of interrogation: Why are they on your To Do list and what would you gain by doing them? Can you delegate them or not do them? Anything in the not urgent and not important quadrant just needs striking off your list completely.

It’s much easier to focus when you can properly prioritise your tasks, and it’s easier to drop the distractions and interruptions once you recognise them for what they are.

The Pomodoro Technique

On days when it’s really hard to get started, the Pomodoro Technique is perfect. Named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer – pomodoro means tomato in Italian – it is possibly the simplest way to force yourself to get on with your work:

  1. Decide what you’re going to do
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Start.
  4. Stop when the timer goes off, and take a 3-5 minute break

If you are really struggling with focus, then set the timer for 15 minutes – anyone can focus for 15 minutes, on any task and quite often once you’ve got started, it’s much easier to keep going.

The official technique, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, includes more details around counting pomodoros, which is what each bout of productivity is called, into sets of four, recording each completion with a tick, and taking longer breaks after sets. But ultimately, it’s really about just putting a timer on, and now allowing yourself any distractions at all until you hear that alarm go off.


For challenging days, a ‘buddy working’ system, where you explain your goals for the next half hour to a friend or colleague and then check back in at the allotted time to report on your progress, can really help you to hold yourself accountable. Buddy working can be very effective when you’ve got particularly tedious or gnarly tasks on your list that you really don’t want to do – telling someone what you’re going to do creates a commitment strong enough to push you through the difficult task. And your friends can nag you if you get distracted!

Track your time

The one thing easier than losing time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea is not recognising when you’ve lost time to social media, chatting, or making cups of tea. And worse, if you’ve had the wrong kind of busy day, full of unanticipated or involved tasks, it can be easy to feel as if you haven’t done anything.

The best way to tackle both of these problems is to track your time so that you know exactly how much time you spent doing what. There are quite a few time trackers available, although Toggl is probably the best of the free trackers. Using it to track work on particular projects or types of task will give you a clear idea at the end of the day just how you used your time.

When setting up a time tracker, don’t be too specific with your tasks, so “Admin”, “Email”, or “Executive Report” are sensible categories, but “Sending an email to Georgina Harries” is too specific. It’s also important to be honest with yourself, and to turn the tracker off when you check Facebook or go to make a cuppa.

Toggl allows you to track in your browser, or using a desktop app, so it’s really easy to start and stop the timer. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re in the habit, you’ll gain a useful insight into your own habits. Are you taking a longer lunch than you should? Or losing time when you’re switching tasks? Or spending more time on social media than you imagined?

A time tracker will help reveal these gaps in your day so that you can make adjustments, such as maybe moving your lunch earlier so that you get a clearer run in the afternoon, or giving yourself a defined break mid-afternoon so that you can regain a little clarity for the last part of the day.

How to identify and develop essential soft skills

Soft skillsSoft skills are in great demand but short supply, according to many employers. But what are they? Soft skills are often described as being personality-based behaviours, such as working well in a team, taking direction, managing your time, and communicating clearly. Hard skills are related to your specific area of expertise, so being able to develop software is a hard skill, but collaborating with your colleagues is a soft skill.

“At Fluidly we believe that engineering is a team sport so ‘soft’ skills are very important to us and we assess for them for every role,” says Fluidly founder, Caroline Plumb. “In particular, curiosity, communication, and empathy for people and customers are key skills we look for. We believe this makes the team stronger, product development faster (& more enjoyable) and customer experience far better. Technically brilliant candidates who don’t have these skills aren’t a fit for us – they might be talented individuals but we are looking for the people who make the team perform.”

Excellent soft skills are essential for small teams, as Inga Rudzitis, Operations Manager at Float points out: “We’re a fairly small team and we really pride ourselves on being one team. We don’t like to silo ourselves, so we work cross-departmentally all the time. This means soft skills like communication and teamwork are key for us. We’re also really interested in people’s potential, not only their past experience. Soft skills are typically the most transferable, so they’re a really meaningful part of understanding somebody’s potential.”

And as Faye Whitlock, head of talent at GoCardless, an online payments provider, points out, soft skills are important even in technical assessments. “Candidates are informed that we’re not looking simply at their coding skills and problem solving,” she  says, “but collaboration and communication [as well]”.

Soft skills to develop

Our societal perceptions of soft skills do come with a gender bias that we, as individuals, need to be aware of. Women are often assumed to be good at communication and men are assumed to be good leaders, but that doesn’t mean that women can’t improve their communications skills, or that they can’t be good leaders. Of all the soft skills that women should focus on developing, Rudzitis believes that assertiveness should be at the top of the list.

“It’s a word that can get a bad rap because people confuse it with aggression, but that’s a real misrepresentation. It’s also not a personality type, it really is a skill that you can practise. When I chose to focus on improving my assertiveness it made a huge difference to my working life and it ultimately led me to joining the world of tech startups and working at Float.

“At its heart, assertiveness is all about being open and honest. It’s bound up with a host of other great soft skills such as active listening, communication, delegation, and receiving feedback well. It’s about learning to understand and value your own needs and opinions, expressing those appropriately, as well as being empathetic towards other people’s. Being more assertive can dramatically improve your management skills, relationships with other people, and your own happiness in your role.”

Women need to learn not to undersell themselves, Whitlock says. “Don’t be afraid of applying for jobs that feel like they may be out of your comfort zone. We think that a candidate’s attitude, motivation and aptitude for the role are more important than just a checklist of experience that they’ve done it all before.”

What are your strongest soft skills?

Of course, it’s easy to see soft skills in others, but slightly harder to know how good your own soft skills are. Plumb suggests that, if you want to understand your own soft skills repertoire, ask others for to tell you what they think your strengths and weaknesses are.

“Good people to seek input from are peers, reports, a line manager, a senior leader and someone outside the reporting line but who is also a stakeholder,” perhaps in a different team, says Plumb. “It’s good to get a wide range of opinions from people who’ve seen [you] in different circumstances, from succeeding to being up against it and under pressure. Ask open questions and listen hard for the answers without being defensive.”

Whitlock agrees: “Ask for feedback, always! We’re big fans of proactively asking for feedback on a daily basis, be it in spontaneous casual conversation or by emailing people after a project or meeting to ask about what they should keep doing and what they can improve. To candidates, ask for more detailed feedback to the recruiter.”

Rudzitis also suggests self-reflection as “a really valuable and under-appreciated practice. Whenever I get frustrated about something going on (at work or at home), I try to think about why I got so annoyed, why I responded the way I did. What result did I want from that situation and how would I try responding differently if this happened again? More often than not, this usually flags something I realise I should probably work on for myself. It can be really empowering because you learn to focus on what you can change, rather than blaming external circumstances or things beyond your control.”

Practice, practice, practice

It’s also a good idea to develop your soft skills outside of a work context. “Communication skills could be improved through drama, a toastmaster course or even comedy classes,” says Plumb. “Leadership could be for a project rather than running a team, or organising a large group activity. Think about opportunities to develop, make a plan of what you’re going to try and then reflect on it afterwards. The best way is to keep trying and learning – it doesn’t have to be perfect, some of the best learnings can come from the worse outcomes.”

That kind of self-development takes “bravery and practice,” says Rudzitis. “The more you practise something, the better you get at it. Sometimes it’s hard to take those steps though, which is where the bravery comes in. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, skills like networking can be so daunting, but ultimately you’ll never get better if you don’t take the plunge and give it a go. And then another go, and another!”

Rudzitis recommends that, in an interview, you use “the STAR method, describing the Situation, Task, Action taken, and Result” to illustrate your soft skills. “How did you identify the problem and analyse the situation that led you there? How did you communicate and work with others to solve the problem? Sometimes it can also be helpful to explain why you opted against an alternative course of action, as this can show a different side to your decision-making skills and an awareness that there are other ways of working.”

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to those in business that you think are particularly strong in a skill you want to develop and ask for their support and advice,” Whitlock advises. “You’ll be surprised by how much of a compliment this it to them and that they’ll usually be more than happy to help.”

Soft skills are very important to employers across the board, so when you’re writing your CV and preparing for an interview, spend some time reviewing your own soft skills and think about how you can most effectively communicate them. Demonstrating strong soft skills will help you gain the attention of recruiters and land that job!


Xero logoThis post was originally written for the Finding Ada Online Careers Fair for Women in STEM which was sponsored by Xero, a beautiful, easy-to-use online accounting software for small businesses and their advisors. It has over one million subscribers in more than 180 countries, with more than 250,000 of those in the UK.