Actor Alan Alda Discusses the Art of Communicating Science Effectively

Mr. Alda shares with a Lisner audience how improvisation helps scientists relate and communicate.

Alan Alda
Actor and author Alan Alda says even scientists in different fields often don't understand each other. (William Atkins/GW Today)
June 09, 2017

By B.L. Wilson

Alan Alda, actor, and now author and raconteur, stepped onto the stage of George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Thursday night to thunderous applause, whistles and cheers.

“Wow,” he said, “I feel like a late night talk show host.”

Best known for his role as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce in the hit television series, “M*A*S*H,” these days Mr. Alda holds conversations around the country about communicating ideas, emotions and knowledge, particularly scientific information, more effectively.

In an evening event sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates, he recounted to a full house his worst ever communication experience in a dentist’s office when he was “a little over the age of 50.” He was having a tooth extracted by a surgeon who explained as he raised his scalpel, “There’ll be some tethering.” When Mr. Alda asked the dentist what he meant, the dentist simply repeated, “Tethering. Tethering.”

“I was old enough to say, ‘Put the knife down, and tell me what you’re talking about.’ But I didn’t,” he said. Instead, the dentist proceeded to cut his frenum, the bit of tissue between the lip and the gum. Mr. Alda said it left him with a smile that was more like a sneer.

The best experiences in communication are a kind of relating, he said, which he learned from acting and carried over into hosting the PBS program, “Scientific American Frontiers.” Its aim is to make complex subjects entertaining and understandable to the general public.

“The thing about relating as an actor,” he explained, “ is I don’t say my next line because it is written down. I say it because the other actor says or does something. If I decide the night before what I’m going to say, it doesn’t look life like.”

Similarly, when he interviews scientists, Mr. Alda said, “I don’t have a list of questions. I ask because I want to know something. If I don’t understand it, I make them tell me in a different way.”

Mr. Alda has incorporated many of these ideas into a new book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.”

He said he began to think he could teach scientists to speak in a way that the public gets what they are talking about.

“Even scientists in different fields don’t understand each other,” he said, recounting a story of a meeting of scientists who spent several days “arguing over what a probe is.” Many professions, he said, use jargon that is seldom understood outside of a particular field.

Mr. Alda’s quest to help scientists communicate more effectively led to the founding of the Center for the Communication of Science at Stony Brook University in New York that is named in his honor.

He started by teaching a small group of engineering students how to use improvisation that in his words is “a distilling of your message, the content of what you say and what it has to do with the other person—how the other person is taking in the information.”

“Anything else is spraying,” he said. “That’s not communicating. That’s excommunicating.”

Throughout the evening, Mr. Alda used humor, storytelling and interactions with audience volunteers to demonstrate how improvisation helps scientists relate to the public.

In one instance, he invited a woman on stage to mirror his moves and pantomime actions to emphasize the importance of observation.

“Relating is based on observing the other person and letting them into your conscience,” he said. “You have to stay with the person and observe where they are.”

The technique has been used to train as many as 8,000 scientists in effective communication. “What we teach is empathy. One of the things that brings out empathy is improvisation,” said the actor turned science communications educator.

He said psychologists are studying whether there are ways to build empathy, trying everything from watching emotional dramas with the sound turned off to figure out the emotion being conveyed to giving people random empathy tests.

“All you need to do is pay attention,” according to Mr. Alda. “If you’re trying to make yourself clear and don’t look them in the eye, there’s not much of a chance that anything is going to happen.”

The evening culminated with questions from the audience, one of whom wanted to know what could be done about the current political environment in the United States that has fostered a resistance to facts and science. He offered no specific fix but stressed the importance of “respect.”

“If you crush a person’s identity, they’re not going to be receptive,” Mr. Alda said.

 

 

 

 

 

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