Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Don't Be Confusing

Here is a note I got from an undergraduate studying physics and my response:

On 11/11/13, Nicholas H. wrote:
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I read one of your posts about the usefulness of writing skills and even graphic design skills in physics and I've been thinking about what I would need to improve in those areas.  Could you elaborate any more about how you use those skills or what you must be able to do to excel in those areas?


On 11/12/13 Tyler wrote:
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In my opinion the ability to solve hard problems is almost as important as knowing how to weave a story that describes why those problems are interesting and how your solutions solve them. Richard Feynman might be the ultimate example of a Physicist that mastered the art of communicating technical information in a very elegant and accessible way. There are several of his lectures and interviews on YouTube. I would recommend watching/listening to some of them. You don't need to copy him just pay attention to how he goes about crafting his explanations.

As a Physicist doing R&D for a large company, I am under constant pressure to get results very quickly. I run many experiments on a daily basis that generate piles of data. Much of my time is spent grooming that data. Whittling it down to some nugget of critical information. Typically I'll need to fit a week's worth of work into a single PowerPoint slide and the only explanation I can provide may be a 5 minute presentation to a room full of people that have no idea what I'm talking about. In that situation it's all about being concise and direct and, above all, not confusing people. Our goal is ultimately to make decisions; confused people don't make good decisions.

Obviously writing is critical to your ability to communicate but learning some simple elements of design could really help you understand how to guide someones eye in your presentation and avoid slides cluttered with text or incomprehensible graphs. I'm not saying you should become a graphic designer but it's a crime for people to miss the point of your presentation because they were battling with your graphics. A great reference is a guy named Edward Tufte (www.edwardtufte.com). He's written a few books on the subject.

On a grander scale I often catch myself falling victim to what I call the Harry Potter syndrome. This syndrome is the idea that people will be able to see my true potential in spite of any apparent disorganization or ignorance. Unfortunately, it's a delusion. People will only see what you present. If it's confusing they will have very little confidence in what you are saying, Your career will be built on the confidence that other people have in you.