This lecture is about communication in various contexts in data science. It first provides four general principles of communication, then discusses some strategies that implement these principles, and finally examines how these suggestions apply in a few examples. The primary reference is Trees, Maps and Theorems by Jean-luc Doumont and other references are listed at the bottom of the page.

Effective communication is optimization under constraints. – Trees, Maps and Theorems

What makes for effective communication is context dependent; the context determines the constraints. The context often depends upon:

  • Audience (business executives, data scientists, etc)
  • Medium (slide show, text document, etc)
  • Purpose (convey results, impress an employer, etc)
  • Content (we built a predictive model, drug A doesn’t work, etc)
  • Time (do you have a day or a week to prepare?)

Communicating well is challenging and takes lots of practice. In my experience communication involves design, engineering and empathy as well as the ability to work with words. In data science it requires the ability to work in different mediums, for example:

  • Written document
  • Static visualizations
  • Dynamic visualizations
  • Interactive application (e.g. Shiny)
  • Slideshow
  • Web page
  • Speaking
  • Literate programming (e.g. R Markdown)

The principles discussed in this lecture apply to all of these mediums. These principles also apply to more contexts than just presenting results:

  • Coding an algorithm (other people, including a future you, need to be able to understand your code)
  • Coordinating with collaborators
  • Asking for help

Four general principles for commuication

This section presents four general rules for communicating effectively:

  1. Adapt to your audience.
  2. Maximize the signal to noise ratio.
  3. Use effective redundancy.
  4. There are usually trade-offs

The first three of these come from Trees, Maps and Theorems (these rules might remind you of information and coding theory). They are general principles which apply to many different contexts.

1. Adapt to your audience

Adapting to the audience means you take responsibility for the success or failure of your message reaching the audience. It comes naturally to us; you talk to your parents differently from how you talk to your best friend. The act of adapting requires empathy; you have to understand how the recipient perceives the information you are conveying. Adapting also requires some persistence; if the first strategy does not succeed then try another one.

Adapting is partially an act of generosity. How many hours of your life have been wasted sitting through a lecture that you didn’t get much out of? However, communicating well is also beneficial to your career.

Much like being customer-minded in business or being user-friendly in software development, adapting to one’s audience is really a question of effectiveness more than one of selflessness. – Trees, Maps and Theorems

Understanding who is in the audience is a critical step. Some common types of audience members you may face include:

  • Familiar or unfamiliar with the topic
  • Technical or non-technical
  • Expert in the topic at hand or in a similar but distinct topic
  • Native or non-native language speakers
  • Interested or uninterested in the topic

Many audiences are heterogenous which presents an extra challenge.

2. Maximize the signal to noise ratio

Nothing is neutral in communication. – Trees, Maps and Theorems

The audience sees every dot in a graphic and hears every word you speak. Anything that does not convey your message to the audience hampers your message. Often message optimization is more about minimizing noise than maximizing signal.

For visualization, simple and focused is often better than fancy and detailed. For example watch the progression of a poor graphic to an effective graphic in this blog post.

Documents/presentations/webpages should be consistent and minimal. All formatting (font, text size, structure, webpage style, graph colors, etc) should remain uniform throughout. Changes in formatting will draw the audience’s attention so use it selectively. Similarly, bolding and emphasis words (very, really, etc) should be used only occasionally.

Optimizing a message’s delivery first requires a clear understanding of exactly what the message is. Figuring out your thesis is not always easy; it sometimes takes several rounds of revision to home in on and understand your thesis.

3. Use effective redundancy

If you convey your message via multiple channels the audience has more than one chance to understand the message. When I lecture in class I communicate orally and visually (with a slideshow). A stop sign conveys its message in three ways: color, text and shape.