Initial Publication Date: March 5, 2015

Strengthen Professional Communication Skills

This page is based on discussions at the 2013 Geoscience in the 21st Century Workforce workshop and stems from work by Roger Bezdek (President, Management Information Services), Dan Vaughn (Vincennes University), Petra Dekens (San Francisco State University), and Dave Douglass (Pasadena City College).

Jump down to: Consider your Audience | Improve Writing Skills | Improve Presentation Skills

Communication is an important skill for the workforce, regardless of the field you are in. Virtually all jobs require conveying information to a range of audiences both in and outside of your field. Effective communication promotes problem solving and can be the driving force to promote change in unsustainable habits and to engage the community in making a difference.

Impress future employers by strengthening your communication skills. Communicate professionally by being clear, accurate, and succinct. Remember that communication is both written and oral and that it could be as informal as an email or introduction or as formal as a written report or interview. Also keep in mind that audience is important and communication should be tailored to fit your audience. Read more below on how to hone your communication skills to communicate more effectively.

Consider your Audience

As a professional, you will interact with a variety of people on and off the job. The most effective employees are adept at communicating with co-workers with similar backgrounds as well as those from other disciplines. Often, professionals will also need to communicate with others who rely on them as 'experts' for a particular field or topic, including clients, media, politicians, and the general public. Thus, it is important to have effective communication skills for a variety of audiences.

This involves determining what level of communication is appropriate and then adapting presentations - whether written or oral - accordingly. Some of these audiences will have an extensive scientific background and others will have none. For example, an entry-level environmental consultant could routinely communicate with the following audiences: co-workers at their peer level (e.g., other hydrologists), co-workers from other disciplines (e.g., chemists), project managers, executives, clients, technicians, drillers/tradespeople, site owners/managers, regulatory agencies, and stakeholders (e.g. community groups, parents, Nature Conservancy).

Ways to practice communicating to different audiences:

  • Compare literature written for various audiences, like articles from Science and Scientific American, and attend talks and lectures for various audience types for examples of how to communicate to others within or outside of the sciences.
  • Informally practice communicating to lay audiences (e.g. the community) by talking about your school work, research and/or work with family members or friends outside of your major - if they have a blank or confused look on their face, chances are you're communicating with too much jargon, haven't sufficiently explained jargony terms, or are otherwise communicating at too advanced a level.

Improve your Writing Skills

Writing skills are essential for the workplace. Professional writing needs to have clarity and brevity and should be written to the appropriate target audience. Cover letters and resumes are often used to gauge written communication skills and can be opportunities to 'sell yourself' to potential employers.

Writing skills are utilized in email communication as well as professional report writing, both of which are common in the workplace. Employers tend to prefer clear, common-sense writing that gets the point across rather than verbose reports that are heavy with jargon. Regardless of what you are writing, there are three guidelines you should always follow: know your audience, be clear, and keep the goal in mind.

Whether writing an email or a report, some common writing tips include:

  • know your audience
  • be professional - do not use slang terms or text abbreviations
  • be clear and concise
  • focus on the take-home message


Improve your Presentation Skills

Oral communication is prevalent in the workforce, from making initial contact with a potential employer through the interview process, and experiences on the job itself. Practicing giving talks at all scales and for multiple types of audiences is a great way to prepare for the types of oral/visual presentations you will encounter in the workforce. You can start to practice these skills by giving talks to your peers as part of student class projects. Communicating science to the general public by taking part service learning community report-outs or by volunteering to informally teach at a local school or participate in an after-school program or summer camps are invaluable in getting communication experience. You can also hone your professional communication skills by presenting their research at local, regional, or national conferences. Check with your campus career center or department for opportunities for career preparation through informal interviews or practice sessions during which you can practice giving short elevator talks about your research or answering practice interview questions.

The Elevator Talk

The elevator talk is a short, 1-2 minute conversation-starting technique that can be used to introduce and 'sell' yourself and your work to potential future employers or collaborators. While it is a short introduction, you will benefit by practicing it with peers and mentors. An elevator talk should be professional, succinct, and should be tailored to its audience, meaning, be cautious to not get bogged down with jargon that makes it difficult for your audience to understand. Learn more about elevator talks.

Short and Long Talks

Like the elevator speech, a talk should be aimed at the appropriate audience level, be clear, and free of superfluous jargon. Some presentation tips include:

  • use clear and not overly complicated visuals such as images and graphs to illustrate points
  • stay away from using strange fonts
  • keep animations to a minimum
  • humor is generally well-received, but be cautious on overstepping bounds with humor
  • practice several times prior to giving your talk; this can help with timing, pacing, and overall comfort of giving the talk.

A general rule of thumb is to spend 1 minute on each slide and to allow time for some questions at the end of the talk; it is important to stay within the allotted time. Presenters should think about and anticipate how they would answer questions they receive following the talk (practicing in front of peers and colleagues can help to identify some of these questions). It's okay to say you don't know the answer to particular questions, but do so gracefully.

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