Giving an oral pitch on your work may seem to be an unrelated skill compared to writing, but there are several key advantages to developing a pitch for a piece of technical writing. Surprisingly, for me, developing a pitch for highly technical ideas makes my writing process more efficient. Here are the reasons why.
One of the key tips on writing is to know your audience. When practising your pitch in front of people, you don’t need to imagine who your audience is! Usually my explanations are pitched towards a senior undergraduate student in science/engineering. This is particularly important in multidisciplinary projects, where you have a diversity of academic backgrounds, but all are highly trained in their field. Usually I can tell how understandable I am by the type of questions they ask. For example:
- Do they ask a question about a topic that they have not learned about? Then I didn’t provide enough background to my audience.
- Do they ask a question about what I just presented? Then my explanation wasn’t clear enough.
- Do they ask for additional information about the work that I didn’t talk about? Then my explanation was clear, but I was missing some parts in the logical flow.
I know when my pitch is good, when the types of questions I am asked are high-level criticisms about my work, such as my methodology, my scope, or the suggested impact of my work.
Another key tip on writing is to practise writing every day. I don’t know about you, but some days I’m good, some days I’m terrible, and other days I stare at the screen now knowing what to write. The pitch is an opportunity to make an attempt at explaining a technical concept to someone, and at the same time get feedback on your understandability and logical flow of information. The more practise you get in front of different people, the more you are able to refine your explanation.
This isn’t just important in writing, but in communicating efficiently with your supervisor and your students/postdocs. The better they understand the technical concepts you are explaining, the more likely your supervisor will be able to give feedback, and the more likely your student is able to work independently on that particular concept.
One of the things that I dislike the most about writing is editing. Because I know the content so well, I am blind to the weaknesses of the manuscript. The pitch is a way to refine your explanation before you write, so you are able to pick up weaknesses in the explanation as you’re writing.
With only a short amount of time to describe the work, you have to prioritise the key ideas that contribute to a logical argument. Your understandability is based as much on what you exclude, as what you do include! This makes the pitch useful for developing the first page of your first page for your grant project description, or the cover letter for your journal article.
There’s a book written by Helen Sword, who does research in academic writing. One of her books, which I enjoyed immensely, talks about the different dimensions in developing pleasure during writing. One of those dimensions is a social dimension, such as a writing group. Writing groups are usually set up so that you write individually but in the same space together. However I’m one of those people who writes when the inspiration strikes me, rather than with a schedule.
I’d been wanting to start a writing group for several years, but I didn’t know what format would work for me. When I attended a pitch day at my department, I found that format really useful. I started writing group meetings this year, so that researchers can practise their pitch, and then send their manuscript around the group for feedback. In this way, audience members become familiar with the work, so when they give feedback on the manuscript it’s more about the writing rather than trying to understand the concepts at the same time. This makes it more efficient to give feedback on the manuscript.