“Get into the game” – e-communication clarified

by Prof Benita Olivier

I am sitting next to the hockey field while my 7-year-old is playing his first mini-hockey game. In short, I can very accurately describe that what I am observing here is absolute chaos. But, it is organised chaos. These boys are super-excited and all of them want a hit at the ball – all at the same time. Then, on my left, an equally excited dad was shouting repeatedly: “Get in the game! Get in the game!”

At first, I thought “Indeed! Valuable advice” but then I realised that these boys do not have a clue what to make of this advice. What does “get in the game” actually mean? What does it mean to the dad? What does it mean to the boys? For me, it means to go and tackle the ball. For the dad, it may mean to do what you were taught to do. And for the boys? Mmmm….. I’m not sure they even registered…

This scenario made me realise the importance of effective communication in our everyday lives, including the workplace. As academics, we deal with a lot of emails daily – from sending manuscripts to co-authors to providing feedback on assignments to students, and many more. Each of us has our own meaning that we connect to a specific bit (or rather bite) of communication. Communicating more effectively will increase your work satisfaction and those of others. Imagine you can avoid those misunderstandings and delays altogether or at least minimise them. Also, in the shoes of the receiver, imagine all the emails you receive are carefully formulated, clear and concise. Now, this is a world that I’d love to be part of!

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As most of our communication is through email, here are a few tips that I’ve learnt in the last 11 years in the academy:

  1. Put a few words, which accurately describe the content/intent of the email, in the subject box, then go on, write your email and stick to your subject. This makes it easier to find emails afterwards when one needs to refer back for some reason.
  2. Add a greeting to the email such as “Dear Sarah” or “Good morning Prof Mokoena”. A more casual “Hi Vanesh” is also acceptable when the situation lends itself to that.
  3. Be a “normal” (what is normal anyway?) human being – a casual tone is sometimes beneficial. Adding in a bit of small talk (or even a lame joke) such as “Now that winter is here, and before we all start to hibernate, I think it is time that we get that paper submitted” or refer back to your last engagement “I hope you are doing well and that last week’s presentation to deanery ran smoothly”. Read the situation sensitively and act accordingly – you will know when a slightly less formal approach is appropriate.
  4. Put the core purpose of the email in the sentence below the greeting/introductory sentence e.g. “I’d like to get permission to use the cricket pitch for research purposes on the 7th of August 2019”, then follow with your motivation and other detail.
  5. When formulating your email, be explicit and chuck the hidden expectations out the window. If you have a deadline in mind, don’t assume the receiver of your email will have the same deadline in mind e.g. if you need feedback on a paper which need to reach the publishers before a certain date, and you would like to have two days to make the final changes before final submission, share your expectations and negotiate from there, if needed. Also, clearly state what you want the other person to do with this paper – scan through, double-check the tables or review the entire paper. This approach will avoid a mismatch between actual and perceived expectations.
  6. In this same line, don’t make assumptions (you know what they say about assumptions) about what you think someone else means when you read their email. If there is ambiguity, ask.
  7. Emails do not have a tone of voice or a body language – precede your email with a quick call if it involves sensitive information which lends itself to being misinterpreted.
  8. To follow up on a case, use the same email thread in which the initial communication took place – everyone has a lot going on and the initial communication serves as a refresher of what has been said or decided. This approach makes responding to an email easy, which means there is a reduction in the turnaround time.

Keep the above in mind when you reflect on your own communication skills. Let us foster a culture of clear communication.

Go and get into the game!

Benita

Benita Olivier7b.jpgProf Benita Olivier is an Associate professor and researcher in the field of musculoskeletal physiotherapy

Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Witwatersrand

Twitter handle @BenitaOlivier and @ResearchMaster4

A first for everything

I recently had a nerve-wracking experience, my very first manuscript was finally ready to be submitted to a journal but when it came time to press the “submit” button, I froze. I had been working on this manuscript since my honours year in 2015, it has been 4 years, there have been countless drafts, my co-authors (my supervisors) were happy with it and they were ready to let it go. I think I reread the final draft 87 times, checking if I had dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s, I found myself making excuses to not submit, it wasn’t ready (after 4 years it really REALLY was though!), I wasn’t ready and, frankly, I was TERRIFIED. This would be my introduction into the ‘real world’ of research, the very first piece of writing I put out to my research community for them to critique and read.

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So, what did this millennial do before pressing submit? Naturally, I went to Twitter and told my online support system that my impostor syndrome had crippled me. I was overwhelmed at the response, many people offered advice, words of encouragement and some even offered to press submit for me, it helped me feel less afraid. Many researchers shared their feelings about their first submission and their first rejections. It has now been just over a month since I submitted, I am still anxious and check the submission status constantly but I feel more confident now, even if the paper is rejected, my online support helped me realise that it is not the end of the world, it is simply a hurdle that I will overcome.

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So, in honour of my first baby, my first paper, I thought I should put together a post that helps guide other first-timers in the world of publication! There are many fantastic detailed guides online, one of my favourites is from Dr Melanie Seiler on the blog The Female Scientist. This is a good guideline for writing a paper, outlining what is expected in each section and how to go about writing your first paper. Also check out this guideline on Enago, How to Write a Research Paper. These are REALLY helpful to start your writing process! Below I detail a few of my own tips, the last one being my favourite. My editor, Prof Inglesi- Lotz, has also contributed to this area of interest in a SAYAS blog post which is worth the read before going into a panic about publishing your first paper.

  • Find a good support system

I was fortunate enough to attend a publication workshop early last year hosted by The Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences at WITS University and led by the phenomenal publishing machine that is Dr Jennifer Fitchett. Dr Fitchett covered the publication process, she explained things like H-indexes and choosing journals and navigating this scary space. If your institution offers writing support like this, I encourage you to attend, it is great to work through problems in groups and to bounce your ideas off researchers that could be in a completely different field in order to test the clarity of your work.

Your support system can also consist of your co-authors, your supervisors and your peers. They are probably familiar with your work and if you ask, would be happy to provide feedback. If you love Twitter, like I do, then an online community can also help you navigate through your fears.

  • Choose your journal wisely

Most journals have an outline of the research work they publish and often a guideline for authors. Make sure to check your prospective journals’ homepage and learn about their format, submission and review processes. This will help you decide if it is the right journal for your work and assist in preparing your manuscript. Another way to decide if a journal is a good fit for you is to look at your own reference list and the journals you frequently cite, this could be an indicator of the right type of journal for your research work. Aim high and even if you are rejected, chances are you will receive some feedback that can be helpful in revising your paper. If that is not for you though, try to pick a suitable journal based on the research at hand, this requires an honest look at your work.

  • Get a second, third or fourth opinion

It is okay to feel unsure! It is great to bounce your ideas off other people whose opinions and input you value. The manuscript can be circulated (confidentially) for you to get some constructive feedback. This is also why conferences and seminars are so important, they offer an opportunity to present to an audience who can provide feedback and act as a room of reviewers. Discussing your work with others may encourage new ideas and insights and take you out of your mental bubble.

  • Stop that impostor syndrome

ff8827a44ceb7590b70c0fe0f5e63bbe.jpgMy wonderful SAYAS editor also reminded me that just a few weeks before my panic, I had written a blog post on Impostor Syndrome and my dealings with it, she reminded me that I was capable and that my voice, my research and my perspective mattered. Sometimes that is all you need. It is going to be difficult and your fears are valid, but you cannot let that stop you from sharing your research work. You matter!

  • Press SUBMIT!

This is probably the hardest part, once you press submit, your work is out there to be judged. Reviewer 2 is real, and they will probably have feedback but that can all assist you in presenting the best possible work. If you need a gentle nudge, you could always ask someone you trust to press the button for you. I promise once it is done you will feel a sense of relief! Sometimes it is about changing your perspective, although it is nerve-wracking, think of the feedback and how it will help you improve your work.

  • Don’t let the fear of rejection stop you

If your paper comes back with revisions, or it is rejected, do not let that stop you. Take a moment, maybe more, reflect on the feedback, dust yourself off and TRY AGAIN. There are many reasons why manuscripts are rejected and take the feedback and rework it, change your approach, change the journal possibly but do not give up.

  • Congratulate yourself

I pressed submit before 11AM on a Monday and you know what? I had a glass of wine and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt. Celebrate that you were brave enough to do it, you deserve it!Instagram-Simple-as-that-6a4430