Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Advice to Students on Mastering Communication Skills

I found that some graduate students and undergraduate students (even native English speakers) often have difficulties in their communication with me in describing what they intend to convey. After some recent observations and thinking, I found that these students are lacking in their communication skills especially in terms of the logical organization of their thoughts. In particular, the issues lie in two parts:

(1) bottom-up issue: failing to describe things in a top-down way.

(2) context-less issue: failing to connect the background/context of the listener (me) with what they intend to convey.

Let me illustrate these issues via two concrete scenarios that I extracted from my real interactions with students.

*. A student tried to describe to me a problem encountered in his/her research project.

The student immediately dived into the details of a particular experimental subject in his/her evaluation and immediately got me lost. I had no ideas what the student was talking about for a while when the student tried hard to describe so many low-level details to me. I had to stop the student and asked "can you summarize the problem in one or two sentences that I can understand with the granularity level of my existing understanding of your project so far?" The student couldn't come up with such sentences. I further asked "why do I care about the problem in terms of the success of the research project?" The student still failed to answer this further question.

After some more non-trivial interactions with the student, I finally figured out that the problem that the student intended to convey can cause not-good values for a particular metric (among multiple metrics) for evaluating the proposed approach.

The bottom-up issue here is that the student failed to organize the conversation in a top-down way: I would expect the student to start the conversation with me like below:

"I would like to discuss with you on an encountered problem that can negatively affects the effectiveness of our approach, particularly in terms of the MMM metric. The problem is caused by XXXXXX (high-level description of the problem). For example, YYYYYY. ZZZZZZZ. ...."

Instead, earlier the student started the conversation on "YYYYY.. ZZZZZ, ...." or even "ZZZZZZ, ... YYYYY...". At that time, I had no clue or got lost on why the described phenomenon is a problem and why I would care (if I indeed care about the effectiveness of the approach).

The context-less issue here is that the student failed to connect the background and context that I have on the project (i.e., I know what the high-level idea of the approach is and what the evaluation criteria for evaluating the approach are) with what the students tried to convey (i.e., the problem). To make sure that I have the expected knowledge or context to understand the student's problem, besides the expected top-down way described earlier, the student can better start the conversation like "Let me first remind you that the effectiveness of our approach is measured based on n metrics, among which the MMM metric ..... However, I encountered a problem that can cause bad values for the MMM metric. The problem is due to XXXXXX..."

* A student tried to answer my question in a qualifier exam or thesis defense.

Let's assume that the question is "what metrics do you use in evaluating your approach?" The student would start the answer with "ZZZZZZZ, .... YYYYY....". For quite some seconds and minutes, I had no clue or got lost on why what the student spoke had anything to do with my question. Or even worst, in some situations, after the student finished minutes of talking, I still had no clues on what the answer is (for those questions expecting a "Yes" or "No" answer, I still couldn't figure out whether the student intended to say "Yes" or "No"!).

The bottom-up issue here is that the student failed to organize the conversation in a top-down way: I would expect the student to start the answer to my question like "I used two metrics. The first metric is X/Y where X is ... and Y is ... In particular, I measure X with faults seeded with mutation testing, .... The second metric is... " Instead, earlier the student started the talking w.r.t. my question with "Mutation testing is a commonly used way for measuring fault detection capability, ... YYYYY.. ZZZZZ, ....". For a while since the student's talking started, I had no clue or got lost on why mutation testing has anything to do with the metrics. Even when there are occassions where some background information needs to be laid out before giving out the answer, the student still should give strong signals as starting sentences for making clear how what the students will say first is related to the answer. Some examples can be "Before I describe the metrics that I use, I would like to first describe mutation testing, which is related to three out of four metrics that I use, and then after that I will list these four metrics....."

For those questions expecting a "Yes" or "No" answer, the student can start with "My answer is Yes, with three reasons. First, ...." or "My answer is both Yes and No. The reason for me to say Yes is .... The reason for me to say No is ..."

The context-less issue here is that the student failed to connect the background and context that I have (i.e., my question) with what the students tried to convey (i.e., what the student talked about w.r.t. the answer).

* Final remark

I would suggest students to realize these communication anti-patterns and address them. Students who have these anti-patterns in oral communications often have problems in their writing (especially in terms of logical thinking and writing) such as not laying out enough background or assumptions for readers to understand what the students write next, or not clearly and concisely organize the content to make the writing easy to understand.

The Minto Pyramid Principles (e.g., top-down writing style) are good ones to follow as starting points for students. Below are some slides on some key ideas there:
More are described in the Minto text book:

Update: my colleague Macneil Shonle recommends the following book: The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader's Perspective, which may worth checking out. Thank Macneil for the recommendation!

This post more or less follows the top-down writing style, if you realize.:)


  1. Excellent observation, also what I just discussed with my students 2 hours ago.

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  3. I think part of the reason a student may speak to a professor backwards is because of the assumption that professor's have complete knowledge of the domain and understand most of what they are talking about.

    I have a professor who when student approach him about projects always ends up saying "do you think I have everything in my head?"

    I am sure if the same student was talking to to his grandmother he would naturally follow Minto's Pyramid Principle correctly. ...Unless is grandmother is a professor.

    Nevertheless, your statements definitely hold true, and I will also heed your advice to communicate more effectively.

  4. Comment from a colleague Adam Porter at facebook, which includes additional valuable insight: "Another aspect of this problem is that students may not realize how busy you are. They think that you are just as focused on their problem as they are. So they don't think to stop and refresh your memory before starting their discussion."

  5. Exactly what i think and its best way for those student who not command in communication skills.

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