It's not simply a question of whether or not scientists and other specialists can be effective communicators. For that answer is simple. Yes, of course they can. The real question is should they work on becoming effective communicators with other scientists and non-scientitsts alike. Does it matter? The answer to both of these questions is also an emphatic yes. The best presentation book ever written specifically for scientists is Jean-luc Doumont's Trees, maps, and theorems. It is a fantastic book with many good examples of what to do and what not to do. Jean-luc Doumont is an engineer from Belgium who holds a PhD in applied physics from Stanford University in the USA and he is the most rational voice out there today providing training and guidance for a whole generation of scientists, science educators, and students from around the world.
I recommned you take the time to watch this entire presentation by Dr. Doumont, which was delivered at Stanford University's Clark Center on April 12, 2012. In this talk he explains why scientists are often perceived as being poor communicators, and he discusses the challenges of communicating with lay audiences. In November, 2011 I was keynoting at the Creativity World Forum conference in Belgium, so Dr. Doumont gracioulsy volunteered to drive all the way over to Hasselt to spend some time chatting with me about everything presentation. We were like kindred spirits. It's one of the most enjoyable 90-minute conversations I've ever had. Absolutely inspiring. I remember that Dr. Doumont said then that scientists and PhD students attending international conferences reported to him that they actually did not understand much of the content being presented and they reported remembering even less of the actual content once they returned home. He says something similar in the Stanford talk as well. If you ever have a chance to hear Dr. Doumont speak or attend one of his seminars, don't hesitate to sign up.
At a glance
I realize that an hour is a long time to devote to watching a presentation online, so below I put a few of my favorite lines from Dr. Doumont's talk above. There is much more great content in the talk so please bookmark it and watch the entire talk when you have a chance. Some of the quotes may seem quite provocative, but you need to watch the talk to get the context
"People can only learn something new if they can relate it to something they already know. That's the only way."
"When people like you [scientists & PhD students] talk about their research, half of the time even your peers don't understand what the hell you are talking about, and when they do understand they find it boring. That's the sad truth."
"Scientists cannot communicate very well with non-scientists, but in fact they cannot communicate well with other scientists either."
"If you are a PhD student, a post-Doc, or even a professor, where have you been all your life? In School! And school is the worst place where you could possibly learn communication."
"You see the problem here. We are learning to communicate by explaining things to people [professors] who all ready know [the material]. What kind of learning experience is that? It's the wrong approach…..on top of that the purpose is being graded, which means we have to prove to those people grading us how clever we are."
"Find a simple way to explain something complex."
As I mentioned, the book is excellent and well worth the money, but if you can not afford that at the moment, you certainly will find this 16-page and free pdf document called Traditions, templates, and group leaders: Barriers to effective communication quite useful indeed.