24 Conversation


A successful career in science depends on having advanced interpersonal skills. Everyone has the capacity to learn, develop, practice, and apply verbal and nonverbal skills to benefit their community and themselves. This chapter describes conversations as an essential communication tool in science.

Sections in this chapter

Your voice

Your voice continues to enjoy a privileged place in your communication toolbox, being the first one you use in your infancy when you cry for food and attention the moment you’re born. Since then, you’ve developed richly expressive verbal skills that make your voice your most essential communication tool. When trying to make a point very clearly and emphatically, slowing down your pace so that the listener focuses on each word, raising your volume to jolt the listener into paying closer attention, and dropping your pitch to sound more authoritative all have advantages over using all-caps, bold, italics, and/or underlining in an email. For sheer expressiveness and precision in communicating meaning, your voice is your go-to communication tool.

The five stages of conversations

A skilled professional knows when to speak, when to listen, and when stop speaking before the audience stops listening. Though expectations may differ depending on the field, level, knowledge, and experience, conversation skills are important in daily life, when presenting, and during job interviews. Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond (2002) break conversation down into five stages that we will adapt here for our discussion.[1]


As the first stage of conversation, initiation requires you to be open to interact and perhaps use small talk to help “break the ice”. You may communicate openness with nonverbal signals such as approaching someone, stopping a few feet away, facing them, making eye contact, and smiling. Initiation of conversation can be difficult for introverts in unfamiliar settings.


The preview verbally or nonverbally indicates the conversation topic, e.g.,Can I ask you about how I can safely perform this procedure?”  Like emailing, a Direct-approach is usually appropriate, but for sensitive topics, you may want to indirectly preview the topic. For instance, a manager needing to talk to an employee about being late for work too often might start off by saying, “That was some nightmare traffic on the highway this morning, eh?” 


At this stage, you can get to the point. You may signal to your conversation partner that you have three points you need to cover, much like outlining an agenda at a meeting. This may sound formal at first, but in listening to casual conversations, you’ll often find a natural but unacknowledged list of subtopics leading to a central point, which helps the conversation from getting off track.


Similar to the preview stage, this feedback allows speakers to clarify, restate, or discuss the talking points to arrive at mutual understanding. In some cultures, the points and their feedback may recycle several times, or a simple “Are we good?” might be all that’s necessary at the feedback stage. Communication across cultures may require extra time to ensure a mutual understanding.


Accepting feedback on both sides of the conversation often signals the transition to the conversation’s conclusion. Closings mirror the initiation stage in that they can be signalled verbally (e.g., “Okay, thanks! Bye”) and nonverbally, such as stepping back and turning your feet and body in the direction of where you’re about to go next in preparation to disengage while still facing and speaking with the other. If words like “okay, one last thing” are used, the listener expects a conclusion in the very near future, and they will have mentally shifted to the next order of business. Mentioning a time, date, or place for future communication clearly signals that the conversation, although currently concluded, will continue later.

Conversations in Science

There are so many different settings in science where conversations occur. Consider how you would treat each of the conversations in Table 24.1 differently based on the situation.

Table 24.1. Contexts for science communication
Communicating … Considerations Typical formality
with peers You can more easily use local terminology and jargon due to a common understanding. Informal
with your supervisor Also have a common understanding. Make sure to be honest about what you know/don’t know. Semi-formal or Informal
with scientists in your field For example at a conference or research seminar. Asking questions after a research talk. Semi-formal to Formal
with scientists in other fields Also at conferences and poster presentations. May have different cultures and terminology. Semi-formal to Formal
with your family or the general public They won’t know scientific jargon and may have different definitions of words like “theory” Usually informal but depends on context

Improving your conversation skills

If you prefer to text rather than talk to people most because you grew up in the smartphone era, you could be out of practice for interacting with people in person. You may also find it difficult to communicate science with others; there are several generations of adults who grew up without smartphones and therefore tend to prefer talking over texting. The onus rests largely on you to improve your conversation skills, and luckily there are vast resources available online. For instance, we can draw on a very accessible TEDtalk by Celeste Headlee, a talk-radio host and author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter (2017). We’ll adapt her well-viewed speech 10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation (2016) for our own purposes below and build on them with a few points of our own.

  1. Be Present: Devote your undivided attention to the person you’re speaking with and don’t multitask.
  2. Be prepared to learn: A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue where you simply unload your opinion.
  3. Ask open-ended questions: The more vague your questions are, the more freedom you give your conversation partner to answer on their own terms. Avoid “yes/no” questions.
  4. Go with the flow: Respond to your conversation partner’s main points rather than with some digressive story you were reminded of by one of their minor points.
  5. Admit to not knowing: Make your confession of ignorance an opportunity to learn rather than claim to know something you don’t.
  6. Honour the uniqueness of their experience: When the speaker relates something that happened to them, resist the urge to make it about you by equating their experience with yours.
  7. Cut yourself off before repeating yourself: If you have only one point to make, “hit it and quit it” rather than saying the same thing over and over, even if you change the words.
  8. Stay out of the weeds: Focus on your main points and don’t get caught up in details.
  9. Listen: A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue, and therefore requires that you actively pay attention to what the speaker says.
  10. Be brief: People are busy and have things to do, so if your conversation detains them for longer than they have time for, you will stretch their patience.

Headlee concludes that these tips are all variations on being interested in what people have to teach you (TED, 2016). If you add the following to Headlee’s advice, you stand a good chance of improving your conversation skills.

Mirror the speaker

You may have occasionally caught yourself automatically imitating your conversation partner’s posture, facial expression, and manner of speaking. Coined the “chameleon effect” by psychologists, mirroring is unconscious physical behaviour motivated by our desire to fit in so our conversation partner identifies with and likes us (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Though it happens unconsciously, mirroring deliberately has been found to be especially effective in job interviews, though only if the person being mirrored doesn’t notice the imitator doing it. If you can be subtle and natural about it, intentional mirroring forces you to read your conversation partner’s verbal and nonverbal messages closely.

Correctly Pronounce Names

The importance of pronunciation is nowhere more important than with people’s names. If someone’s name looks difficult to pronounce on paper, simply asking them how they prefer their name to be pronounced is better than confidently mispronouncing it. Keep trying until you get it right — it’s their identity and they deserve to be called the correct name.

Avoid one-way conversations

A conversation isn’t a monologue where you fire words at a wall until you have nothing left to say. It’s more like a game of volleyball, tennis, or ping-pong where possession of the speech right is exchanged back and forth. If it’s a friendly game, the objective is to volley words for as long as it’s fun or productive. This may mean asking a good question, which lobs the speech over the net to your conversation partner. They answer and can either ask you a feedback question in return or you can respond to their answer with a statement. Every time you speak, you must set up your conversation partner to be able to respond with either a statement or question and expect them to do the same. A conversation must be a dynamic process where both sides make a determined, concerted effort to keep it going until the objective has been reached or the clock runs down.

Telephone and voicemail

The simplest form of voice conversation is a telephone call because there are no nonverbal cues. Sometimes a quick phone call can save people from the back-and-forth of many emails over days. Phone calls are also useful for private conversations that you may not want to have in writing. As the response from the receiver to the sender, feedback is also an essential element of phone conversations. Taking turns in the conversation can sometimes be awkward when you can’t see when your conversation partner is about to speak.

When you lack the nonverbal context of your conversation partner being able to see how you say what you say, ensure that your voice accurately communicates your message. Without nonverbals, your choice of words and how you say them, including spacing or pausing, pace, rhythm, articulation, and pronunciation are more relevant than when you talk in person. Consider these five points:

  1. Speak slowly and articulate your words clearly.
  2. Use vivid terms to create interest and communicate descriptions.
  3. Be specific. Don’t assume that they will catch your specific information the first time. Repeat as necessary, especially addresses and phone numbers.
  4. Keep it private. Avoid calls in a crowded elevator, for instance.
  5. Silence devices when in a meeting or eating with colleagues.

When you phone someone but are sent to voicemail because they don’t pick up, switch to monologue mode and simply say what the call is about in concise, clear terms. Anything that needs discussion must be saved for the actual conversation, especially anything of a sensitive nature. Add your contact information, even if you think the person already knows your phone number, and say it twice slowly so that the listener has additional time to get a pen and paper if they’re still looking for them the first time you say it. When you receive a voicemail, return the call as soon as possible, since a phone call implies a sense of urgency.

Chat and Text

Conversations through chat and text messages have aspects of both email or in-person conversations. They are like in-person or telephone conversations in that they tend to be informal; after initial salutations, you don’t continue saying “Hello, Name” even if the conversation takes place over several days. The conversation may be ended by “Ok, thanks”, or may not have a natural end and be left hanging to be picked up later even for a different topic. Grammar and punctuation are also less important on chat and text message because many people know what these conversations are made using small keyboards on smartphones. Like emails, chat and text messages are more commonly used for asynchronous communication. Chats and text messages are efficient modes of communication for quick questions and requests with people close to you, or to request more formal meetings.


This chapter was adapted from Communication at Work by Jordan Smith which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

  1. Steven Beebe, Susan Beebe, and Mark Redmond (2002).


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Principles of Scientific Communication Copyright © 2020 by Amanda Bongers and Donal Macartney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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