Three ways to improve your data science communication skills

This blog post has been updated and was originally authored by Lara Kattan, Metis Sr. Data Scientist.

 

 

 

Data scientists are often described as hybrids; part statistician, part computer scientist, part analyst, part strategist. While we focus on the myriad technical skills a data scientist should possess, we often overlook one of the foundational skills (without which the whole structure falls apart) – communication. Being able to build models is all well and good, but if you can’t succinctly express the assumptions, takeaways, and next steps to the rest of the company, then your model isn’t worth the bits it’s made up of.

A talented data scientist working in isolation doesn’t help anyone. Communication’s what turns potential insights into actions that benefit the business. This is why it’s essential for those in technical roles to develop their ability to communicate potential and risks to all decision-makers.

If you can’t trust your data scientists to talk to your C-suite, you have a problem. You can invest in translators or team members who specialise in turning data science into business-speak, but this may not be the right choice at every scale.

No matter if you’re a seasoned presenter, or if the idea of public speaking has you breaking out in hives, there are proven strategies to make you more comfortable and effective. You can apply these strategies to job interviews, presentations, conference talks, and to improve your team’s outward communication.

 

1. Avoid presentations of how you ‘data science-d’ 

I teach a data science bootcamp that requires regular presentations. This is the advice my students are most often vexed by, especially in their first presentations.

If you don’t know how to structure your presentation or explanation of a project, you might be tempted to talk about how you ‘data science-d’. This might look like “I got data from such source, added it to this database, downloaded it into a Pandas data frame, ran this scikit-learn model on it, and here are my model coefficients and test statistics.” No one wants to hear this presentation.

The parts of your project which took the longest time to figure out or problem-solve might not actually be the right ones to spend the bulk (or any time) of your presentation on. In most cases, you’ll want to keep your presentation about why you chose a particular model and how the business can use it, not the technical differences between L1 and L2 regularisation.

An effective and simple way to avoid the ‘how I data science-d’ trap is to start with the model outputs and conclusions. If you begin with the output, it’s harder to recount your model building exercise. As much as we may enjoy the intellectual exercise of model building, this isn’t usually why we’ve been hired as data scientists. You’ll build trust throughout the organisation and be selected again for new assignments if you’re able to translate the tedious work you did into pithy, but also rigorous next steps for the business.

 

2. Calm your nerves with deliberate practice and breathing exercises   

You wrote and practised an excellent decision-driven presentation, but the time to speak is now and you’re frozen. What do you do? Nerves happen to even the most seasoned speakers and anxiety alone won’t derail your presentation. Deliberate practise beforehand is key to great execution.

By deliberate practise I don’t mean sitting at your desk, scrolling through your PowerPoint, and imagining your presentation in your head. Practise in conditions as close to the real scenario as possible. Once the time comes for the actual presentation, you can rely on your practise to take you through a fair bit of anxiety.

Breathing exercises may seem silly and embarrassing, but they work. Your body is evolved to react in certain ways to protect you when there are threats. When you get nervous and your body thinks there’s a threat, your autonomic nervous system kicks in and changes your breathing, amongst other things. We can sort of trick it and get it to work for us by slowing down and regulating our breathing. My favourite breathing exercise is to breathe in for five counts, hold it for one count, then breathe out for five counts. Repeat this a dozen times.

 

3. Add vocal variety and emotion to engage your audience

If you’re not used to practising vocal variety, you may feel a little silly at first I generally tell my students to speak at a volume and with enough inflection that they feel inside their heads they’re being a little ridiculous. This is about the amount of ridiculous you should feel for your audience to find you sufficiently engaging.

Volume’s one of the more important characteristics you can change. If people need to strain to hear you, they’re going to stop listening at a certain point. This may not be fair if you’re naturally a soft-spoken person, but you don’t need to change your natural personality to project a little more.

Experiment with vocal variety by talking a little faster sometimes and then a little slower. Remember in the last point we talked about deliberate practise? Work vocal variety into it. Go through your script and find where it makes sense to take a little pause, then take it. As you work on it, you’ll become more comfortable with holding silence for a second or two in service of a point.

If this doesn’t seem natural to you, record yourself as you practise. You don’t even need to listen to the recording for it to be useful. Sometimes just knowing you’re being recorded can be good practise for speaking to an audience If you can stomach listening to your recorded self, even better. Play it back, but be kind to yourself. Make note of things you’d like to work on and try again.

 

You probably already have strong intuitions about what you like and don’t like to see when others present. The quickest way to improve your own presentations is to note what you like and try to do more of it. Once you start doing this accounting exercise, you may notice things you usually dislike about your own presentation style aren’t as off-putting as you imagined. Notice how much more forgiving you are when others present than when you yourself are up there, and then give yourself a break!