Career Story Blog Post By Amy Donner, PhD, Director of Communications at RA Capital Management, LLC
A brilliant idea that cannot be communicated is no more useful than no idea at all.
Whether you aim to specialize in communications, manage projects, develop strategic alliances or run your own company, strong communications skills are an essential component of a successful career. If you are a good listener and writer, you already possess two important skills that set you apart from most scientists. Put your self-assessment to the test by considering the following question: Can you take the information you gather from multiple sources, turn it into a plan of action, and communicate that plan to others in a simple and comprehensible fashion? If so, congratulations, you are well on your way to a successful career. If not, what do you need to learn to get you to a ‘yes’?
Listening is a forgotten art, and yet it is one of the most important aspects of quality communication; it is undoubtedly one of the most important skills I have honed that sets me apart from the crowd. Candidates for communications positions often focus on their writing skills, somewhat nebulous ‘people’ skills, and/or their oral presentation skills. All of these are important, and deficiencies in any one of them can derail your career; however, quality listening skills distinguish a great communicator from the average. All communications positions require that a company, a boss, or a collaborator can trust you to understand the information they need to communicate and to craft an appropriate message based on that information for their audience. Depending on the source(s) of information, it can take some work to understand what message is intended and whether there is one message or multiple messages. In cases where there are multiple sources, initial messages are often mixed and can even be in conflict; getting to a unified take-home point requires that you first listen and recognize when you need more information before you can act.
Taking what you hear and converting it into a plan of action will make you not only a highly effective communicator but also a professional who can successfully manage projects, teams, or relationships. As a communications specialist, identifying the take-home point and converting it to a message accessible to the intended audience is fundamental. Conversion of the input you receive to the outgoing message is sometimes the only action necessary. If you want to expand your career options, developing the ability to convert diverse inputs into a series of actions that lead to the completion of a project will help you along the way.
Never forget the audience. Communications specialists take the same information and distill it down so that a group of patients, a potential investor, or a conference room full of scientists will understand it. The language used to convey information to each of these audiences varies widely, and a quality communicator always remembers who is on the receiving end before they craft their output. If necessary, take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of the recipient. Practice developing your message with a trusted stand in – a friend, a colleague, or a family member; it will help you find the right balance of information. If you can do this well, your company and your audience will value your contributions. The same rules apply when creating a list of actions to guide the completion of a project. It is essential to tailor the list to the actors; if there are multiple actors with different roles, multiple lists with information specific to each of their tasks will clarify everyone’s path forward and increase the probability of your project succeeding.
In communications, every day is different, which is part of the fun and the challenge. Communications roles are incredibly diverse. Based on my own experiences, I recommend identifying potential employers by selecting organizations with missions that speak to your professional passions. I have always been passionate about drug discovery. As a program manager for a foundation funding translational neuroscience and oncology research, I was able to tap into that passion. The same has always been true whether I was an editor at Nature Chemical Biology handling manuscripts reporting new chemical probes, an editor at SciBX scouring the literature for advances in translational research and talking to scientists and companies to craft a story about the business opportunity associated with the scientific advance, or the Communications Director at RA Capital helping to clarify investment opportunities in drug discovery and to share our investment philosophy with the community