Speaking with Confidence – or Why We Ramble [Link]

by Jessica Lu on April 27, 2012

Good verbal communication is a valuable skill for a scientist. The article below discusses a common trait for many young scientists — rambling.

Do you hear yourself in those examples? How have you improved your question answering style? What advice do you have for interviewees?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jason Wright April 27, 2012 at 10:35 am

I hope this is not too off topic, but the place this comes up most, I think, is oral exams, so let me riff on that.

One source of rambling in orals, I think, is the (reasonable) advice that since these exams are designed to probe the contours of your understanding, one should never just say “I don’t know”, because that’s abdicating all possible credit. Instead, one is often told, one should answer, “…but here’s what I do know”.

Done correctly, this works well. A question on an oral is often multilayered and tricky — it may seem simple but in fact be a broad introduction to a long, detailed calculation, or it may seem horribly precise and arcane but in fact be solvable in a delightfully simple way. Professors like to show off these sorts of questions, especially since they can be reasonably sure that the student has not simply memorized the answer.

In this case, the student is not supposed to know the answer right away. The professor is expecting them to outline the components of the answer, and then the professor will see how much or little guidance the student needs to get to the right answer. There is a large dynamic range of students to explore, so a passing grade may not even involve getting to the “end.”

Thus the advice: say what you do know, it’s OK not to know the answer.

But, when a student struggles, this can lead to rambling. A student that is not confident in what they do know may just perform a brain dump, spewing terms and concepts hoping that something will “stick”. This can be painful for the professor to watch and torture for the student: I know many astronemers who are STILL traumatized by such an experience, many years and successful jobs later. Anyway, in this case the advice is backfiring: better to lay out what you do know concisely and confidently and wait for a response.

Incidentally, I think that this is closely related to another concept regarding oral exams: in astronomy they are common because, we reason, defending ones ideas orally before a hostile audience is an important professional skill. This is true, so it does make sense to test it. But equally true is that if we are going to test it, we should first teach it.

What are others’ experiences along these lines? Did/do your graduate studies include training, informal or otherwise, on how to present your ideas orally? Did that training include how to do it in front of a hostile audience? How can faculty train students not to ramble? Or is it something that just follows from confidence in one’s own thought?

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2 Emily April 27, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I have noticed myself doing this especially in pubic talks, and I’ve gotten better about it since I noticed. I find that it helps to stop the ramble before it starts – get into the habit of listening to the entire question (don’t cut someone off once you think you know what they’re asking), then pausing. Take a drink of water if you have it, or throw out a generic “That’s a very good question” to give yourself a couple more seconds. Then you will be prepared to calmly and succinctly answer the question.

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3 Jorge April 28, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Following Emily’s comment: it also helps to repeat/rephrase the question. This helps those in the audience understand the question better (in case audio is poor or the question was not phrased properly); it gives you extra time to think harder about your answer; and you get a chance to make sure you understand the question. Also, when questions seem cryptic or aggressive, it’s okay to ask the person in the audience “why are you asking that?” Sometimes clarifying the motivation behind a question helps the discussion flow more easily. I feel that this works too for interviews, for slightly different reasons.

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4 Shelley May 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm

First and foremost, not just graduate students ramble! After brewing over this for a few minutes, I thought of a few “rules” that might help us avoid rambling in a professional setting, such as a job interview.

(1) Say “I don’t know”, when you don’t know it.
(2) Phrase your statement concisely and with clarity.
(3) Avoid introducing tangents to the primary topic being discussed.
(4) Remember to listen to others and solicit their opinions and feedback.

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