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Everyone knows that communication skills are important, but sometimes the term can be so broad that it’s difficult to understand what it means in particular contexts.

When applying for an academic role, it’s unlikely that you’ll be invited to expressly demonstrate ‘excellent communication skills’ at interview. More commonly, you’ll be asked about particular areas of your experience: your research interests, publications, ambitions, without being invited to reflect on the more generic competency of communicating effectively.

Beyond academia, you’re much more likely to be asked to evidence your communication skills in a written application or job interview. So, what are employers looking for when they talk about communication skills? Does this vary by sector? And how can you reflect on, develop and demonstrate your competence most effectively?

An ability to take complex information and present it in a way that’s easy to understand

“You need to be able to communicate your work in a way that makes it accessible to other disciplines so that they can understand and help you solve any challenges you have. You need to be able to see the bigger picture, appreciate someone else’s point of view and communicate in a way that is as simple and accessible as possible, while retaining the pertinent information.”

Dr Joe de Sousa, Senior Leader, Non-Executive Director and Consultant at Melhor Consulting

As a researcher, you are likely to be skilled at eliciting key insights from your data or source material. Whether that material consists of medieval manuscripts or lab results, researchers are skilled at synthesising information in order to identify findings and present these in compelling ways. Understanding what the pertinent or powerful messages within the information you have to work with and conveying this effectively to others is an important skill in any field.

An ability to adapt your communication style to the audience and purpose

“In industry you meet with a greater variety of people… You meet with experts in your area and the language may be more technical, but when you meet with clients, it will be more solution-oriented. For example, what is the problem? How can we solve it?”

Dr Lan Hoang, former postdoc turned Research Staff Member, IBM Research

You may have communicated your research findings to experts, other postdocs, school students, external partners etc. For different audiences you may present the message in a different way, adjusting the focus or level of technical detail to meet their level of understanding and interest. This is a communication skill that is also important beyond academia. Employers value the ability to understand the relevance of the context of communication.

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An ability to listen and respond to cues from others

“[Postdocs] have a huge wealth of communication skills. They will have written and presented at conferences. They will be familiar with writing manuscripts. They will be familiar at looking at data and extracting the key information from that data.

Rebecca Douglas, Group Programme Director, IPG Health

A valuable skill is the ability to listen well to:

Highlighting your communication skills to employers

Think about the different methods and forms of communication in which you have experience and what type of aptitude these might demonstrate. Outputs are important but most employers beyond academia are as interested in the skills you used to achieve the output as they are in the output itself.

Beyond Academia employers may not understand the range of skills involved in having a paper published or presenting at a conference, such as, composition of a powerful abstract which distils complex findings into no more than a few hundred works, and which is judged competitively. Be clear about this in applications

In addition to these more general considerations about what good communication entails, you may wish to explore the resources below about particular aspects of communication.

  • presentation skills
  • commercial communication
  • storytelling

Presentation skills

Giving effective presentations is an essential skill in getting and succeeding in almost any career you’ll go into.

In this resource we explore a whole range of presentation skills from content and audience to poise and posture. We look at your breathing, voice, eye contact, entrance, exit and everything in between.

Commercial communication

If you’ve got an idea you need to be able to communicate it accessibly, interestingly and inspiringly. This resource shows you how to communicate effectively in a variety of commercial contexts.

The secrets of storytelling

Dr Andrew Holmes explores why storytelling is relevant to career development and all you need to know about effective storytelling, from scintillating starts to effective endings, and everything in between.

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