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Soft Skills Part 2 - Communication

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Soft Skills Part 2 - Communication

Further to my post on Integrity, I was talking to a friend the other day and felt that the topic of skills in the "Toolbox" needed to be delved into more.  There are all sorts of tips, tricks, articles and videos on data analysis, data management and programming; but there are certain "soft" skills that need to be discussed as well.  One of these is effective communication, and I wanted to talk about it next because it ties in nicely with the Integrity piece.  


Communication obviously comes in many forms - speaking/listening, writing, body language, presenting, graphics/tables, and mastering these all is something that takes years (I'm still not comfortable giving presentations, even though I've been doing it for well over 30 years).


Being able to effectively communicate in any role involving data is vital, because you need to be able to explain your data, your methods, and your results to people who range from brand new novices right up to and including experienced statisticians.  


I'm going to briefly cover the first three in this post, and presentations and graphics/tables in future ones as I want to spend more time on those particular topics.



These are the obvious forms of communication, but because they're obvious doesn't mean they should be taken for granted or that everyone is able to do them effectively.  When you're speaking, you have to ensure that the information is in tune with your audience.  


One of the reasons I love my job is I am the bridge between internal Information Management, users, management, and the various staff at the software development company that developed our database.  I have to be able to talk to the nurses about entering data for Case Costing, IM about setting up dashboards, management about the findings, and the staff at the developer company about enhancements etc. to the application.   If I spoke to the Users with the same level of technical detail I speak to the Developers, I would lose their confidence very quickly.  i need to be able to adapt - and when we are on a conference call, I need to be able to "translate" between the different groups very quickly.  


Speaking is only half the story though - the other part of it is listening.  I learnt in high school a technique called "Reflective Listening", and I use it to this day - not only does it allow me to clarify / confirm what the other person is saying, but it also allows them to hear that I am actively listening.  


An example of this would be my manager coming to me and asking "I need to get the counts of all surgeries for this fiscal year."  I would say "I'll get you the counts for this year - would you like me to include minor procedures?" The conversation would flow, with me using the reflective listening, and in the end, I would know that my manager needs the counts of surgeries broken down by Anesthetic Type for this year, broken down by month, and excluding minor procedures (cases done with local anesthetic, but not in the operating room proper).  Had I not used Reflective Listening, I would have provided a single number, and there would have then been an ensuing back-and-forth.  Spending a few minutes talking to her, confirming and elaborating on the requirements, saved the both of us hours. 



The second obvious form of communication is the written word.  An English teacher once told my class that to be a good writer, you need to be an active reader – seeing different techniques allows you to find your own voice.  If you’re unsure of your writing skills, I recommend signing up for a couple of courses through Coursera ( - they’re free, online, and offered by a wide range of universities from around the world.  One that I’ve just found is (, and is called Reasoning, Data Analysis, and Writing; it’s a specialization which means you take a certain number of courses (in this case, 3). 

You may be able to generate high-quality, powerful data visualizations, extremely useful statistical analyses, and speak to anyone about your work – but if you’re writing has run-on sentences, improper paragraph structure, and ill-formed reasoning, your credibility will suffer dramatically.  Personal experience dictates that if you’re emails / reports aren’t well-written, even the most important finding in your career will go unnoticed.


Body Language

How would you feel if you were giving a presentation, and one person was sitting with their arms crossed, slouched in their chair, staring at the table?  What if another was looking at their phone, and another doodling in their notebook?  You’d feel like no one was listening – and chances are good that you’re right.  We try and multitask, but there is plenty of evidence supporting one task at a time is the best way to do things.  If I’m giving a presentation where I will need the attention of all attendees, I ask the people in the room to put their phones on vibrate, and have questions that I ask during the presentation (“What is your process for ______”, “My understanding of ____ is that _____”, etc.) – this allows you to see who is engaged and who you may need to direct specific questions to to ensure their participation (“Mr Smith, I understand your department does ____”). 

Your body language is always, always important – sitting at your desk, walking through the halls – anywhere that someone can see you, how you convey yourself is key.  When I was first starting out, my dad said “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” – I say “Act like you have the job you want”.


Data analysis is not done in a vacuum – your reports, graphs, and analyses are created to be shared, and having that information conveyed accurately, completely and with confidence is key.

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