Business Forum: Effective communication is fundamental to success in photonics

A recent article in a business magazine cited that more than 60% of companies polled in a survey consider communication skills as the top skill they look for in hiring a new employee.

1304qa Chang New Web

A recent article in a business magazine cited that more than 60% of companies polled in a survey consider communication skills as the top skill they look for in hiring a new employee. I am surprised it is not 99.9%.

Effective communication to bring one's point across can make such a big difference in everything we do because we constantly have to sell our ideas, exert influence, and have our way—to land a job, win a grant, get funding to start a company, and convince people to take our side.

I was fortunate to get input from two friends to help me with this essay on the importance of communications: David Tytell, manager of marketing and communications at MIT, and Jeff Hecht, a regular contributor to this magazine and to New Scientist. Their input is particularly germane because both are technologists-turned-professional writers. I paraphrased what they said and thank them for sharing their wisdom and insight.

Dave stared at me when I asked him how to begin and said, pause a moment to contemplate where you stand relative to your reader or listener before you start. Decide on the message from their perspective. Define which aspects of your discussion can make an impression and how you might best convey the message to get their full attention.

For that, you have to know something about your audience and how they view you. Then, he told me about a YouTube video showing a blind person begging on a street corner. His placard states "I am blind, please help me!" He was able to get a few coins from time to time. Then, a passerby—no doubt a marketing professional—changed the message to read, "It is a beautiful day, but I can't see." Coins rained down on him hence. This video may be staged, but does point out that how you make your case does matter—in this example by appealing to a passerby's emotion vs. stating a fact.

Here are a few useful generalizations I got from Dave and Jeff:

Tell a story. Begin with an outline as if you are telling a story—no matter what you are writing, even if it is a research paper. Make the story fun, exciting, and suspenseful, as you want to capture the reader's full attention. If possible, keep the punch line until the end so the reader will read on. Use the so-called Watt's eight-point story arc: The stasis (starting point or status quo), trigger (what sparks off the story), quest (build the story), surprise, critical choice (crucial decision), climax, reversal, and resolution. Feel free to use adjectives, and even go overboard on superlatives because you can always ratchet back. Always follow the adage, tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.

Be brief. It is really important to be able to express yourself clearly without being verbose. Anything more than necessary to make your point only serves to distract the reader. Information overload drowns out the main message—worse, it provides thoughts for objection.

Write it, sleep on it, and edit it again and again. Even experienced writers have difficulty getting started on a text. Write down whatever lead sentences come to mind to choose from later without worrying about the wording or even the order of your thoughts because it is easy to make revisions and move text around. Keep going until the first draft is finished. Then, fine-tune the text again and again! You will see ways to tell the story succinctly to get your message across, especially if you wait a few hours between drafts to see the text with fresh eyes. A 20% reduction in length with each pass is not an unrealistic goal.

Write frequently. Practice makes perfect! You will even become a better speaker. E-mail writing presents an excellent opportunity to practice communication skills. A good discipline is to edit the draft at least twice and reduce the length by 40% before hitting the send button.

In a future editorial, I will address how to put your writing skills to practical use—for example, pitching to investors.


1304qa Chang New Web

MILTON CHANG of Incubic Management was president of Newport and New Focus. He is currently director of mBio Diagnostics and Aurrion. He is a Trustee of the California Institute of Technology and has served on the SEC Advisory Committee on Small and Emerging Companies and the Visiting Committee on Advanced Technology of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the authoring committee of the National Academies' Optics and Photonics: Essential Technologies for Our Nation. Chang is a Fellow of IEEE, OSA, and LIA. Direct your business, management, and career questions to him at [email protected], and check out his book Toward Entrepreneurship at www.miltonchang.com.

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