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Communicating from Complex to Simple: Dr Judy Ford

Posted by Peter Barnes on November 12, 2018 at 8:04 PM

How do you communicate complex information in a way that people unfamiliar with the subject's jargon can understand it? 

How do teams of experts from different disciplines communicate with each other? Dr Judy Ford

Dr Judy Ford, retired genetics expert and now a communications specialist, spoke to The Learning Capacity Podcast about ways to overcome these challenges.

She has been working with PhD students to help them navigate through their PhDs, and this includes how to communicate in writing and especially speaking.  

In the Podcast she talks about the Three Minute Thesis Competition in which students have only three minutes to communicate the ideas that are important in their PhDs.

Listen to the podcast: 


  Topics covered

  1.   How to simplify  spoken and written communication
  2.   Teaching university students how to communicate across disciplines
  3.   Limitations in academic journal articles
  4.   Transition from school - skills needed

People & organisations mentioned

  1. University of South Australia
  2. Toastmasters
  3. University of Queensland

Resources/books/articles mentioned

  1.      The Hemingway App
  2.      Three Minute Thesis Competition

If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:

Episode 89 of The Learning Capacity Podcast

Communicating ...from Complex to Simple - Dr Judy Ford

Peter Barnes:                Dr. Ford, welcome to the podcast. You're a science communicator, a genetics expert, and you recently retired from the University of South Australia. But, you're actually not retired, are you?

Dr. Judy Ford:               Well, I'm sort of retired. I'm now going to try and lead a balanced life, where I spend about half of my time exercising, some of the time doing house chores, and the rest of the time ... I'm trying to develop online materials and online courses, perhaps many, several courses over time, because I don't really wanna travel to work anymore.

Peter Barnes:                That sounds like a very nice lifestyle. What do you doing with your courses? Who are you teaching? What are you teaching?

Dr. Ford:                       Right at the moment, I'm not teaching anyone. Over the last few years, I've had a lot of experience. I was working with PhD students, and my role in the university was to help get the students through their PhDs. So I was helping them with planning their experiments, planning their various interviews and analyses, questionnaires, as well as, of course, their writing and in particular, their verbal communications. As time went on, I got more and more well-known for teaching them how to speak and how to present. In fact, in the last year, I did a lot of work with various specialist groups throughout Australia. The most recent conference that I presented to was ... There was an international space conference on in Adelaide, and I was asked to present a workshop at the beginning of the event, for all the PhD students from all over the world who were attending.

This idea of being able to teach people how to communicate their work effectively to a range of different audiences became a bit of my specialty, and so, I decided that that was where I would start with my course. But, it's not just for PhD students. It's really for anyone who has an important message to convey, and that message, it may be something personal, or it may be something scientific, or it may be something in any other discipline.

My focus is more on getting a very accurate message across in an effective and entertaining way. Whereas I think a lot of other people who train speakers focus just on the entertainment, I've got a real balance, because I think that it's really, really important that people be able to convey an accurate message to the audiences that they're trying to reach.

Peter Barnes:                That sounds like a skill that would be very useful for high school students who are considering what they do after high school. Are they gonna go into a job and career, move on to university? The ability to communicate orally and in writing is one of the skills that is absolutely essential for success in anything we do.

Dr. Ford:                       Yes, yes. That's absolutely true. Over the last few months, there have been some special episodes of the ABC program Q&A, and some high school students have featured on that. Some of these students are absolutely amazing in their competence. I don't know whether they are achieving that through debating, or whether teachers in particular classes are focusing on this.

But, yes, we do need to develop these skills very much in our children, as they're getting close to the end. I think it's something you probably can introduce early in the piece, and then modify as refine as they work through their school curriculum.

Peter Barnes:                Even starting back as early as primary school.

Dr. Ford:                       Oh, as you're seeing ... I was one of these kids of I think, so many kids, who were very, very nervous about getting up and saying what they thought, even though I've turned out to be quite a chatterbox in my old age. One of the parents of one of my friends from early primary school, he said that I was the shyest child he had ever met. I did find it very hard to say what I was thinking.

When I first went to university, my first day, in orientation week, we went to some presentations by great professors who could really speak to very large audiences. I realized then, on that day, that if I was ever going to get anywhere in life, I needed to be able to present, and I needed to be able to present confidently to a very large audience, if necessary.

I was terrified. I was one of these people who thought I'd faint if I had to stand up and actually say something in front of a group, so I decided to put up my name for committees, and get onto committees where I had to speak, just to get into that practice of communicating. So, yes-

Peter Barnes:                You took it on the chin, you put yourself out there, took some risks, and-

Dr. Ford:                       I guess I did, but it was a gradual process. I do remember how some of the students, when they were asked to give their first presentation to a group of people in the department, they were nearly fainting or, in fact, I think a couple of them actually did faint.

The other thing you see is people, they don't breathe, so their voice is getting higher, and higher, and higher, and higher, and higher. You go, oh my gosh, they cannot actually last this whole thing unless they take a breath, either.

Peter Barnes:                What's that cliché about, people would rather die than stand up and give a speech?

Dr. Ford:                       Yeah, yeah. In fact, public speaking is one of the greatest fears that people have. That's why places like Toastmasters exist. I think, even if you are doing a course like mine, it's a very good idea to join a local Toastmasters and still get that experience, because whilst I can give people tips and tricks, I can't give them that experience. You still need to participate in other groups where everybody practices together, I think.

Primary & Secondary Education – communicating ideas

Peter Barnes:                Thinking about primary and secondary education, which I know is not your field. You've been involved in tertiary education for a long time, and high levels of tertiary education.

But in primary and secondary education, what do you think ... Do you think we're missing something in that where we don't seem to be developing the communication skills specifically? It's just seems to be, perhaps, it's a bit incidental. Some students are lucky enough to participate in debating or a course of it. There's no, as far as I'm aware, no curriculum.

Dr. Ford:                       I don't really know what the current curriculum is. I have done a tiny bit of work in schools, mainly around the time when my own children were at school. In those days, there weren't particular courses, apart from drama or other courses that could feed into that performance, confidence sort of area. I think it's obviously possible, and I'm sure a lot of teachers do it, and it's probably teacher-specific.

But, I think this idea of being able to stand up and say what you think needs to be valued. I do think ... I was talking to somebody yesterday about American culture, because her children had actually gone to school in America for a couple of years. In America, there is that huge positioning of yourself and confidence. I think it's a bit overdone, maybe.

Peter Barnes:                Depends what part of the spectrum you're on.

Dr. Ford:                       Yes, exactly, but I do think that we have ... I think all the current internet, and social media, and texting have actually even reduced the value of English literature quite a lot. We do need to see the balance and the building up of, not just in English students, but also in science and math students, that ability to really communicate what you're thinking and communicate those ideas.

I think it would be something that, if teachers were able to manage it in the classroom situation, it would be a great thing.

Peter Barnes:                If they can't, perhaps parents should be seeking some sort of continuous, periodic training throughout primary and secondary school for their students. Because, if I look at what's been going on-

Dr. Ford:                       I'm sorry, I was just laughing for a minute, cause I was thinking, perhaps the parents need to be trained.

Peter Barnes:                Well, quite possibly, they do. A lot of them are probably very scared of ...

The way workplaces have changed and are changing with the impact of technology and cultural changes and so forth, means now that it's much more important to be able to communicate with team members, working in teams coming from different disciplines, like accounting people working with marketing people and so forth. That's across all organizations. I understand you've been doing quite a bit of that work with PhD students and post-docs to teach them how to communicate with people from different disciplines?

The 3 Minute Thesis Competition

Dr. Ford:                       Yes, because often, that was one of the wonderful things about my job, particularly ...Though, you may or may not have heard of the Three Minute Thesis competition, but the Three Minute Thesis competition was invented by the University of Queensland. It was actually invented during water restrictions, when they were only allowed to have three minute showers, and so a professor had this brilliant idea that three minutes, yes, that's long enough to be able to communicate the ideas that are important in your PhD.

So, this person put this forward and they invented this competition, which has now become a worldwide competition. I think the Australasian version is still the latest and greatest, but it's now at least undertaken in America, in England, in the Europe, wherever. This says that you need to be able to convey the important elements of your work in three minutes. It's a little bit like the marketing elevator pitch that people often talk about, but it's ... of course, it lacks any detail, but anyhow.

I used to teach this, and in my classes, I would have everybody. I would have people who were studying English literature, history, politics, mathematics, physics, space, whatever. You had this whole world of people from different backgrounds, and that made it fantastic, because they had to be able to talk to one another, and everyone had to be able to understand.

Now, what was funny was that usually, in somebody's first version, I tried to get them to start off by listening with me, as a class, to a whole lot of examples that were on YouTube, and then we would discuss how they went. What were the good points? What were the bad points? Did they get their message across? The whole gambit of things that they might discuss. That was very useful.

But, nevertheless, a lot of students, when they went away and prepared their first draft, it often still had a lot of jargon in it and was only really understandable by people who were in a closely related discipline. Then, you'd ask the students to comment on one another's talks. You'd get them to give the talk to this mixed group, and you'd get them to give one another feedback. Especially someone ... a shy, international student, who was maybe studying physics, and they were asked to comment on somebody's work who was in education, their first comment would be, “I can't ... I can't make any comment, because I couldn't really understand it.”

Even when they're given the task of creating something that should be understood, they've got so tied up and so ... What's the word I'm looking for? Indoctrinated. They've got so indoctrinated by the jargon in whatever their discipline is, that even when they're trying not to use it or being instructed not to use it, it still comes in.

One of the problems I had, actually, was that the lecturers, and the supervisors, and the more senior staff didn't come to my workshops. So, often, when the students went back to them to get feedback on their scripts, they would want to put all the jargon back in. That was a problem, so I kept trying to say to the students, “You have to ask your supervisors.” They had to listen to some of these examples of the three minute thesis so they get the idea of what's required, so anyway.

That's a bigger problem probably than all of us, that we can't educate the oldies as well as the newbies coming through. It becomes such a habit to use jargon within any discipline, that it's very, very hard to get rid of that.

Distilling complex to simple, without losing the message

Peter Barnes:                There's parallels between what you're describing there, where you're teaching people who are speaking to distill complex messages into short, simple, understandable pieces ... There's a parallel in the speaking world, I guess, to the written communication, where the same thing applies. It's a real skill, I've seen, to take something that's reasonably complex, and then just distill it down into simple language.

Dr. Ford:                       Yeah, and without losing its important messages, because that's ... Part of the problem is that, when you simplify the concept too much, you lose a lot of the importance of the message.

The critical thing is to learn how to get rid of the jargon, but not the concept. Jargon is something that is so alive and well, and the disciplines that are ... I probably shouldn't say this, because I'm used to scientific jargon, so I probably don't notice it as much, but I did find that a lot of the people who were working in the social sciences ... They just have intense jargon. It's just incredibly hard to understand what they're saying.

Peter Barnes:                They'd probably say the same thing about people working in science.

Dr. Ford:                       Well, they would, you see. That's why you need to get everybody together, and for them to be able to translate to one another what it's actually all about.

The Hemingway App

Peter Barnes:               Have you come across an app called Hemingway app, which-

Dr. Ford:                        I haven't.

Peter Barnes:               It's a wonderful little thing. It's free. Hemingway, based on Ernest Hemingway's very clean, easy readable writing. You put your written text into that, and it'll very quickly tell you how readable it is and make suggestions. Probably won't deal with jargon, but it certainly makes the job of creating a clearer communication much, much easier.

Dr. Ford:                       Well, that's good to know. I think I should ... I'll have a look at that and see whether I can somehow put it in. I think you don't want to reinvent the wheel, and I think that that's one of the things I try to do is to say, “Look, there are loads of wonderful examples of people giving good and bad talks, so I can direct you to those and you can watch them, and this is what I might ask you to look for.” So, I can alert them to how they can use these things, but obviously, I don't want to reinvent or try to reinvent everything.

Search it on Google…then communicate what you have learned

Peter Barnes:                No, there's a lot of stuff out there. That's one of the things now that I noticed, that ... I have an 11-year-old grandson, and he basically says, “Anything I need to know, I just go and Google it,” right? The schooling, for him, is what do you do with that information?

How do you communicate what you've learned from that, in speaking and writing? I think that's going to be more and more important in the future for young people.

Dr. Ford:                       I think for old people, too. I do exactly the same thing. I hear about something, and then I go and look for a whole lot of examples of where people have looked at that and written about it. Because, of course, not everything you read is right, and it all comes from different angles.

I might say that even a lot of the work that is published in really reputable journals, that are the ones in the official academic world ... Even then, the work isn't necessarily whole. It's often looked at one aspect of something, and so the study has necessarily omitted other things that are really important.

Often, people haven't made all the necessary connections that need to be made. It's very difficult. It's just giving you a bigger, richer source of information, but you still have to distill it, and put it all together, and find its meaning.

Peter Barnes:                Yes, absolutely. The course ... In your semi-retirement or, when you're in the part of your life now where you're not retired and building courses, your immediate target, I understand, is university, a little, yeah?

Dr. Ford:                       Well, yeah. It is focused at a university audience, but I'm not sure, looking at the content. I'm not sure how restrictive it is. I'm certainly thinking that anybody who had graduated from a course, or even was studying undergraduate at a university, would be able to use it.

Dr. Ford:                       I'm just not sure quite whether it's suitable for school kids, school students, but it might be suitable for students in the latter years in school.

Peter Barnes:                It would be interesting to see whether it is, because one of the things that's got my attention, no doubt lots of people's attention, is the transition from school to university and the huge dropout rate students have in university. I've read ... I don't know whether this is correct or not, but, one in five drop out before finishing their course. I don't know whether what you're offering there would help students in that regard, or possibly not?

Dr. Ford:                       I think the first session of this first course ... There will be other courses. This first session of the first course is about studying your audience and the occasion of which you're going to speak. Now, again, I don't know how many school students are likely to be in a position where they've got information that they're going to go out and give to any sort of audience. I think one of the big mistakes that a lot of people make is on saying, “I have this amount of knowledge. I'm going to prepare this particular talk and give it. They'll go along, and then I'll give it.” But, when you are actually working with any audience ...

 I've done masses of different sorts of talks, from lots of discipline-specific scientific audiences, to lots of generalized conference audience, to lots of support groups, so as a geneticist, people with a particular disability or fertility support groups. I've talked to provosts. I've talked to country community groups, and it goes on.

Each of those audiences is very different. They each come with not only a different set of knowledge, and a different experience, and a different desire to learn, but they're going to respond in a different way. Their relationships with one another are different, so they're going to expect a different type of presentation. You really need to understand that before you start preparing your talk. I would say that the majority of speakers don't do that.

Peter Barnes:                No, absolutely. They talk from their own perspective and forget who they're talking to. When are you going to be be publishing your first course?

Dr. Ford:                       I hope that it will be published in the next couple of weeks.

Peter Barnes:                Well, that's extremely interesting, Dr. Ford. Thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Ford:                       That's a pleasure, Peter.

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