Professional communication

One of the biggest challenges for science graduates is adapting to the communication expectations of a workplace. While scientific workplaces will still require you to communicate scientific information, the audiences and communication genres will be much more varied compared to university. You can’t assume that everyone has the same technical knowledge as you or requires the same level of information that you would normally include in a university assignment.

This module will help you to understand how communication differs across scientific workplaces and highlights important aspects of communication that you may not have learned as part of your degree.


Self-presentation

Once you have entered the workplace, you need to be aware of how your communication affects your image. Sometimes it can be difficult to assess your audience and judge how you should behave or communicate, but you should always aim to be polite and professional.

Regardless of the circumstances, you want to be remembered as a polite and professional employee that is aware of the importance of communication in the workplace, and someone who can adapt to novel situations.

Audiences

At university, you generally don’t have to think too much about your audience. You’re in an academic environment and expected to present your work in an academic style. Your journal articles, essays, lab reports, and presentations will often target a scientific audience whose knowledge of the topic will be similar to your own.

In scientific workplaces, it is important to understand that your audiences can vary considerably. Therefore, you must make a conscious effort to understand your audiences and refine your content and genre to achieve your purpose. This is particularly important when communicating with audiences that don’t have your level of expertise.

Genres

When you enter the workplace, you may be required to communicate using different genres to those you experienced at university. Organisations may require you to use set templates for reporting, contribute to newsletters or website content, or participate in public meetings. You will often receive guidance from supervisors and colleagues on how to complete particular communication tasks.

In addition to communicating scientific information through a variety of genres to a range of audiences, workplaces will generally require you to maintain good relationships with colleagues or clients, and support the values of the organisation in all aspects of your communication.

From university to the workplace



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Emails

Emails are a very common form of communication in scientific workplaces but they are often overused, poorly structured, and easily misinterpreted. Although you will be familiar with the process of emailing, you may not have learned how to construct a professional email or be aware of how a lack of tone can affect how an email is interpreted.

Clear subjects

Make sure that you create a subject line that is relevant to the email, using keywords or specific reference numbers. A good subject line will allow you and other readers to locate or search for the email again at a later date.

If an email topic has gradually changed after multiple replies, you may want to create a new subject line that is more relevant to the new topic of conversation.

Tone

Emails can be easily misinterpreted because of the lack of tone or emotion in the text. This is particularly problematic for very brief emails that:

  • request the reader do something
  • draw attention to a problem.

Emails between colleagues can be interpreted differently if you suddenly change from informal language to formal language, or if you change your greeting or sign-off. It’s best to avoid a quickly typed email with no greeting or sign off unless you can be sure the message won’t be misinterpreted.

Using emoji

Emoji are generally not recommended for professional emails, but there are times when emoji can be used between colleagues to lighten the tone of an email that may be interpreted as unnecessarily terse or demanding.

Example

Dear Larry,
The annual reports are due in a couple of weeks.
Can you send them through ASAP so I can proof them?
Thanks, 🙂
Janine

The following method can be used to structure an email for any audience. As you develop relationships with colleagues in a workplace you may adjust the formality of your emails but they should remain professional and succinct.

The WRITE Email Method

W – Who is the email written to?
Formal greetings: Dear {first name}, Dear Mr/Ms/Dr/Professor {last name}, Dear Sir/Madam
Informal greetings: Hi {first name}, Hello {first name}
R – Reason for the message
Get straight to the point and let the reader know why are you writing the email. For brief emails this can be a question, such as asking for a copy of a document or requesting simple information.
I – Information
For emails where you need to provide information to the reader such as explanations or other details including dates, times, details of projects etc.
T – Take home message
Tell the reader what you want them to do or remember. This is often an action, a question, or a request for more information.
E – End it
End the email politely with your name and contact details. Including a phone number is essential when arranging meetings
Common sign-offs: Regards, Kind regards, Warm regards, Thanks, Many thanks, Thank you.

You may want to create a signature that includes all of your contact details and organisation logo.

For longer emails you can use bold subheadings to break the email into easy-to-read chunks.

View example of the WRITE Email Method

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Representing your employer

Similar to how you develop your own personal image, organisations develop a brand or reputation that they expect their staff to maintain. Depending on the organisation, you may have to follow specific guidelines on how to communicate to people both inside and outside of the organisation.

This may involve formatting documents in a particular way, ensuring your work has been proofread before release to a wider audience, or simply responding to enquiries in a polite and prompt manner. Each organisation will be different but it’s important that you understand what is expected of you.

Social media and online communication

Social media and other online platforms (such as blogs) can be a useful tool for scientists to communicate with other scientists or non-expert audiences, however, it’s important to recognise that:

  • confidential information should not be distributed online (this may include personal information, company information, or research results)
  • your posts and comments could have a negative impact on your workplace.

If you’re unsure whether certain information is appropriate to publish online, check with your supervisor.

For more information on using social media

CLIPS for Work: Networking
UQ Library Digital Essentials – Social Media

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Confidentiality

Confidentiality is an important consideration of many scientific workplaces. To ensure that you maintain appropriate levels of confidentiality, you need to be conscious of who you communicate with and what information is appropriate to share.

Each workplace will have varying amounts of confidential information, but as a guide you shouldn’t communicate information that could cause harm to your workplace or to other people, or used for personal gain.

Many organisations will have confidentiality or privacy clauses as part of an employment contract—it’s important that you are aware of the details included in these clauses. Confidentiality and privacy clauses are often in place to limit confidential information being shared outside of the organisation, however, there will also be information that you shouldn’t communicate with colleagues.

As a general rule, you should only communicate workplace information on a “need to know” basis.

Confidential information can also be released inadvertently through weak security. For more information on maintaining good user account security, visit UQ Library Digital Essentials – Password Management.

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Examples of confidential information:

  • patient test results
  • research participant personal details
  • research or other scientific results
  • contract details with other organisations
  • organisation budgets
  • conversations in meetings.
Communication to build relationships

Email and other forms of written communication are used frequently in scientific workplaces but there are occasions when more personal communication is much better for achieving your purpose.

In addition to achieving your purpose more efficiently, more personal forms of communication can help build relationships with colleagues and gain trust with clients or others outside of your workplace.

Listening

Listening to people is one of the most important skills that you will need for any workplace. Apart from being an essential part of communication, listening to someone and taking time to craft a considered, intelligent response shows respect and is a great way to develop good relationships.

Demonstrating that you’re a good listener will earn the respect of the people you are communicating with, whether it’s a supervisor, a colleague, or a member of the public.

In scientific workplaces that provide a service (e.g. an environmental consultancy), listening to clients is an essential skill because such organisations rely on customer loyalty for future income. Without effective listening you’ll be unable to develop these strong customer relationships.

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Conversations

Conversations will vary depending on the purpose of the conversation and who is involved. Although there are some general suggestions about how to behave during a conversation (i.e. maintaining eye contact, nodding, repeating back what a person has said), there are occasions when these basic suggestions are not appropriate.

You should approach each conversation as a unique situation and adjust your behaviour accordingly. In a workplace setting, you should always aim to maintain professionalism, particularly when you first enter a workplace.

Remember to reflect on your behaviour during the conversation and consider how you appear to the other participant/s. This includes your body language—be conscious of your posture and what you are doing with your arms, hands, etc.

Always pay attention and treat each conversation as a learning experience.

The Ted Talk video by Celeste Headlee gives 10 tips for having a good conversation. In addition to these tips, you must remember the purpose.
What is the reason for the conversation?

Phone conversations

For younger generations making phone calls can be a daunting experience, particularly when making cold calls to strangers. Calling someone can cause anxiety because unlike face-to-face conversations you have no visual cues, and unlike text conversations, you don’t have much time to consider responses and provide a response.

The best way to overcome phone anxiety is to be prepared and to practice.

Preparation

Part of the anxiety associated with making phone calls is caused by not knowing what to say and not knowing how the conversation will play out. You can overcome this to some extent by having a basic plan of the conversation.

If you need to introduce yourself and provide some background information, you can write this out prior to the phone call so that you don’t forget. You could also have a separate script in case you need to leave a message on voicemail or with one of their colleagues.

While plans and scripts for phone calls are really helpful, sometimes you will need to chat to someone for a while to achieve the purpose of the phone call. If you think the phone call may take some time, it’s always a good idea to check if they have time to chat once you’ve have introduced yourself.

Practice

Practice is the best way to reduce anxiety around making phone calls. Unless you’ve had a part-time job that has involved making a lot of phone calls, you may not have a lot of experience making phone calls, apart from calling family or friends.

You can begin to improve your phone skills by opting to respond to emails from colleagues by phone rather than email. In many cases, a quick phone conversation is far more efficient than composing an email and waiting for a response.

Making the call

Similar to the WRITE email method, you can use a plan for phone calls.

W – Who are you?
In a concise manner, let them know who you are and where you work.
R – Reason.
Briefly state why you are calling.
I – Information.
Provide any necessary information. E.g. You may be providing information about a project.
T – Take home message.
Do you want something from them? Do you need them to do something?
E – End it politely.
Thank them for their time.

Technology for digital communication

Technology has made communicating with each other much faster and generally more efficient. However, digital communication still requires effort on your behalf to maintain efficiency, clarity, and security.

Explore the following UQ Digital Essentials modules for more information.

Account security

If you’re communicating online you must keep your accounts secure. This is particularly important for accounts that provide access to an organisation’s files or other sensitive information.

Unique, strong passwords and two-step authentication are the easiest ways to ensure that your accounts are not compromised. With the increased availability of password security apps and browser extensions, it’s much easier to keep your accounts secure.

UQ Digital Essentials password management module

Online collaboration tools

Scientific workplaces will often use a range of tools to communicate with colleagues. Apart from email, you may be required to use software for direct messaging, video conferencing, and document collaboration.

UQ Digital Essentials online collaboration tools module

File and folders

Scientific workplaces will often require collaboration and sharing of documents with close colleagues and external organisations, sometimes over months or years. To ensure files and folders can be easily found and shared, they should be well-organised and named using logical naming conventions.

UQ Digital Essentials files and folders module