I like reading books during my daily commute to Harvard on the T (or subway). It’s only two stops from Kendall Sq to Harvard Sq, so you might wonder how much I can possibly read. Well, it takes about 15 minutes including the time waiting for the train, so that’s 30 min a day. I would say that’s a pretty big chunk of time, especially when you have nothing else to do other than wondering what music other people are listening to, or starring at your smartphone complaining there’s no 3G connection underground. It’s an environment where you can completely concentrate only on the book because you don’t have anything else to do. At home I easily get distracted by emails, ichat, Celtics games etc.

Nowadays, I’m reading a book titled Three Steps to Yes by Gene Bedell. Gene Bedell is a successful person who had risen to a top executive position at Credit Suisse before joining a startup that was spun off from Credit Suisse. As CEO of the startup he helped grow it to a publicly traded company with over $100M market cap. Gene Bedell is also often mentioned by Vivek Wadhwa as his mentor. Gene Bedell was Vivek Wadhwa’s boss in both Credit Suisse and the spin-off startup.

The book is about “how to sell”. It’s not about how to become the best salesman, but mostly about how to sell your ideas, how to persuade other people to do what you want them to do. The author argues that “selling” isn’t just for salesman, but for everyone who tries to convey what they are thinking to other people. As a graduate student who writes papers and gives presentations to persuade other people that my idea can change the world, and also as someone who is interested in doing a startup, I thought this book would be very helpful. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but until now I am very satisfied. I’ll leave the book review for a later post, and write more about the importance of learning how to sell and communicate well in this post.

After coming to US, I’ve heard so many times that having good communication skills is extremely important. I have seen many foreign students including myself trying to learn how to write and speak in English more fluently. I agree that is the first step to better communication skills, but that’s far from enough. I think there’s so much more in communication than just being fluent in a language. I think good communication is more about understanding what others think and trying to lead the conversation to make them comfortable while meeting your needs as well. This requires you to learn how to sell, not just speak.

I’ve realized that this is something very important to all grad students, even if one wants to stay in academia to do research for the entire career. Research isn’t done by a lonely genius inside a cave as depicted by Iron Man. In order to do good research, you need to know what other people are doing and what the major problems are in your research community. Otherwise, you might be working to solve a problem that no one is interested in. To find the right problems to work on, researchers write and present papers to fellow researchers in the community to share and build upon each other’s ideas. All this requires good communication skills. You don’t want to be someone who everyone avoids conversations at a conference.

So, how can we learn how to communicate well? I am also trying to figure that out (that’s why I’m reading the book), and I am no master of communication, so the following are just my thoughts from personal experiences that could be far from the right answers. I think the basics of good communication are

  1. predict what others will think before you say something
  2. figure out what others are thinking after you say something
  3. adjust what you say based on your judgement and go back to 1.

Again, these are just my personal thoughts. It might be totally wrong, or it might be something impossible to do perfectly. However, at least everyone I’ve seen who is good at selling and communicating is good at reading other’s minds and reacting quickly. Because people rarely say exactly what they think, you need to carefully ask and guess what the person really means. One example is when VCs reject pitches from startups. They never say in a straight-forward way that “your idea is bad”, but instead say something like “You need more traction. Let’s discuss more after you get more traction”. The VCs have no motivation to say things that might hurt your feelings, so they prefer to sugarcoat whatever they have in mind. Good communication skills could help you hear more about why they really rejected you instead of mere sugarcoated phrases. Example of bad communication in this situation would be saying “I don’t need those sugarcoated phrases. What to you really think of my business plan!!!???” Example of good communication would be…I have yet to figure that out =)

Some people are just gifted and born to be good sellers, but others learn it through practice. I think the best way to learn is simply to talk with a lot of people in a variety of situations. Even better if you have buddies who can tag along and later give you candid feedback on what you said was appropriate or not. I think I learned a lot about communication skills while taking a MBA class at Harvard Business School last summer.

In class, students from the business, law and engineering schools formed groups to come up with business plans using technologies developed at the Harvard Engineering School. I was lucky to have the technology that I developed in lab assigned to our group in class. After several months of work, we presented our business plan to a bunch of people including VCs and professors at the end of the semester. Each group was assigned a small booth with a monitor showing our slides so that people could walk around visiting booths that seemed interesting.

There was a professor our team had met a month ago to get feedback on our business plan. He was very kind and provided us with comments that helped improve our business plan. He had visited our booth to see our final presentation. Everything went well and we got valuable feedback from him.

This was when I said something that I should’ve thought twice before it came out of my mouth. As he was about to leave our booth, I asked him if he would be interested in becoming our advisor for a upcoming business plan competition. I could tell that he was slightly caught off-guard, and I immediately realized I had made a mistake. He said he was busy this semester, but could discuss this more later. After the professor left, my teammates told me that I “put him on the spot” by suddenly asking him to be our team’s advisor in front of our whole team without giving him time to think about it. He was basically forced to not say “no” because all of our team members were standing there waiting for his answer. It would have been much better to say “We are interested in the business competition. Could you provide us with feedback on how we should prepare for that?”. After he gives the feedback, I could say, “Thanks, your feedback is really helpful. Would you mind if we visit you at a later time to discuss more about the competition?”, and then visit him later to ask if he could be our team’s advisor. This way, he would have had much more time to think about our business plan and perhaps think about advising our team if he was interested.

This is an example of a bad communication that was lose-lose for me and the professor. I didn’t get a “yes” from him, and he (presumably) was not happy to be in that situation. He was a very nice professor, and I felt bad that I might have made him startled and disappointed. However, I was extremely lucky to have good friends in our team who were kind enough to point out my mistake. (I think good friends are those who are willing to help you fix your mistakes, rather than praise you just to make you feel good) I sort of let my teammates down by making this mistake, but they gave me a very kind advice — most of the time, it’s better to slowly build up your request to others rather than going straight to the point.

One might think this kind of communication is inefficient because it takes too much time going back and forth. Maybe I was thinking this way too when I asked the professor since that was the fastest way to get his answer. Unfortunately, it was the fastest way to get a “no”. It would be so comfortable for you if you could say everything in a very direct way and have people agree with you all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not how most communications work. I had a lot of time to think about my question before asking it to the professor, whereas he was forced to give an answer right away. Given that good communication is based on two groups understanding each other, I should have given him time to dwell on the question before forcing him to say yes or no on the spot. This isn’t being inefficient or wasting time going back and forth, but allowing people on both sides of the table to have ample time to think about the issue on the table.

The problem for graduate students is that graduate school could be one of the worst places to learn this type of skill, because there aren’t many opportunities to meet and chat with people in a professional setting. Students spend most of their day in front of a computer running simulations or in a lab doing experiments. They are too stressed about getting work done and getting papers out that they don’t have the time to worry about good communication skills. I’m very happy to have advisors who are supportive of students learning communication skills by sending them to conferences and giving them opportunity participate in meetings with industry people (as long as it doesn’t eat into your research time =) ). I learned a tremendous amount on how to network with people when I first went to a major conference in our field. I didn’t know anyone, so I tagged along a senior grad student who had been to a lot of conferences and knew a lot of people. I still get nervous when talking to high-ranked industry people, but also get really thrilled because I can learn so much just by going through that experience and listening to what my advisors and industry people say in certain situations.

Thinking beyond the graduate school environment, I think communication is something we start to learn as babies. We first learn how to speak, go to school and learn to communicate with fellow students and learn how to fit into a group. Kids sometimes get into fights because of misunderstandings, but learn how to get along with others who disagree with you. Going through these experiences is essential in learning how to communicate. (NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article arguing that Amy Chua’s way of raising kids fail to teach them how to get along with others, which is more important than getting good grades)

Communication is something that I can only learn through experience. Talking with people that I’m meeting for the first time in a professional setting can be at first daunting and stressful, but it is very exciting to be constantly exposed to new people and conversations. I’ll try to take advantage of opportunities that I have in school to learn how to be a better “seller”. And of course, work hard so that it doesn’t cut into my research time =)