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Statistical Communicators Anonymous

1 April 2010 1,432 views No Comment
This column is written for statisticians with master’s degrees and highlights areas of employment that will benefit statisticians at the master’s level. Comments and suggestions should be sent to Keith Crank, the ASA’s research and graduate education manager, at keith@amstat.org.

Contributing Editor
Erin TanenbaumErin Tanenbaum is director of statistical resources at the Nielsen Co. She earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Kalamazoo College and her master’s in applied statistics from the University of Michigan.

Like all professionals, statisticians need to be effective communicators. Do the words “statistician” and “communication” seem like a contradiction? A simple Google search for “statisticians, communicate” shows headlines such as “There are plenty of [statisticians] who simply do not communicate well with nonstatisticians” or my personal favorite, “Statisticians in industry: a failure in communication.” Yet Amstat News articles often reflect the observation in Kathleen Kiernan’s article, “Opportunities Abound for Statisticians in Tech Support,” in the December 2009 issue. There she says, “I have increased my … communication skills, which are sometimes just as important as my statistical skill set.”

Other Amstat News articles have focused on the need for statistical departments to build communications training into their curriculum. Although this is an excellent idea, I wonder about those of us who have already graduated with a master’s or are in graduate school. What can we do to prepare ourselves for the challenges that supposedly are as important as our technical skills? How can we become successful communicators?

So first, let’s take an inventory: What communication skills are needed for statisticians? I’m not referring to simple explanations of t-tests to a nonstatistician (as many of you might have hoped). Instead, I mean skills such as listening, reacting appropriately to others, communicating ideas with as little distortion as possible, and my personal favorite: using nonthreatening ways to convey a message. Yet statisticians gravitate toward black-and-white language as a way to hinder communication. (I like to think of it as the influence of 0s and 1s on our lives.)

Here’s an example: A statistician says to another statistician, “Wow, I’m impressed by the number of publications you have under your belt. How do you do it?” The well-published statistician responds, “I work around the clock. Without that kind of dedication to the profession, there is no hope of ever publishing. In fact, if you don’t work around the clock you should consider yourself an analyst, not a statistician.” How would you respond to something that seems designed to detour the conversation? Do you comply with the shift in conversation and start talking about dedication to the profession? Do you get angry but say very little? Or maybe you think “What a jerk” and decide to let him know what you think of him.

All these reactions, however common to most of us, hinder your ultimate goal of learning how you could publish an article. Those who stay the course and continue with follow-up questions are ahead of the pack. For example, you could have said, “That’s nice, but really, did you have a mentor? Maybe you read a book? I’d really like to learn more about your publication style.”

Should a master’s program in statistics teach us communication skills? Sure. Yet I’m not convinced that professors could fix all our bad communication habits and make us masters in computations within the typical two years of a master’s program. So to help those of us who have already graduated, or are about to graduate, I offer some simple steps. I write “simple,” and yet there is nothing simple about this process because communication is not something that statisticians are naturally good at. Similar to beating any bad habit, you will need a set of steps to guide you. Let’s call these six steps the “statistical communicators anonymous” guide.

STEP 1. Admit that you have a problem. Not convinced because “compared to other statisticians” you are a decent communicator? The first few chapters of Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler will bring you back down to earth. Or consider seeking feedback from your co-workers through a confidential 360 review. Either way, once you acknowledge the problem, be sure to give yourself a break. After all, you are trying to fix the problem. There is no need to dwell on the fact that you have a high need for improvement.

STEP 2. Recognize that the power of effective communication can help you throughout your life. This step is hard for many, since the word “power” conjures up the idea of manipulation and deception. Yet that is not the meaning. A prime example: You would like to work with a renowned statistician in your field. The only problem is that he (or she) always shows up a half hour late (or more) to meetings, and he’s very condescending. Yet you admire him, and you know that if you could tolerate working with him for just six months, what you would learn would be invaluable to your career. In exchange, you know that he would receive a dedicated employee for those six months because you are extremely motivated to work with him.

Now what can you do to prepare yourself for the six months? Do you use him for his knowledge but talk about him behind his back? Or do you learn tricks to deal with his annoyances so that you can keep your sanity as well as your gossip to yourself?

STEP 3. Learn a new skill. Now is the time to pick up a book, surf the web, or attend a communications training course. You will want to learn new methods on topics such as teamwork, listening, or reading people. Consider reading the classics: How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, or Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, by David Keirsey. Or seek out lesser-known works such as The Platinum Rule, by Tony Alessandra and Michael J. O’Connor, or the Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication, compiled by Chris Argyris.

It’s important in this step to take the books seriously. In step 2 you acknowledged that communication skills could help you; in this step it’s essential to understand that although you will not use all of the tools learned in each book, many of these tools have worked for thousands of people.

STEP 4. Practice each new skill you learn. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Only time, patience, and perseverance can turn statisticians into good communicators. Our mathematical backgrounds make this step especially difficult, as we’re used to unlocking formulas and using those formulas instantly with a high rate of success. Yet when applying new communication techniques, it’s not that straightforward. Time and again I’ve attempted techniques, reflected later on what went well (and didn’t), and then brainstormed ways to tackle the next similar conversation. Remember, practice makes perfect.

STEP 5. Seek help from others. Find a communications mentor, ask questions at conferences, join an ASA committee, and learn to appreciate and work with people you might otherwise choose to avoid. By this step you’ve learned some communication skills on your own—now take that knowledge and expand it by seeking feedback from others. No one person will have all the answers. In fact, some people may give lousy advice. Still, I’ve noticed that at least one out of eight interactions contributes to my own learning journey. I’m hopeful that you will have a similar success rate when reaching out to others.

STEP 6. Rest and repeat. If our end goal is to enhance our careers but communication skills don’t come naturally, then it is fair to give ourselves a break and reward small victories. We spend our academic careers focusing on solving problems. It’s a bit of a shock when we realize that there is more to our careers than math formulas and statistical software programs. It’s important in this step to see the gray instead of the black and white. Any improvement you make will pay dividends far in excess of what it took to get there.

Remember that effective communication is something we all need to commit to on an ongoing basis if we are going to succeed as a profession. So go ahead—pave the way for the next generation of statisticians.

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