Connection is Key: Tips on Communicating Science from Alan Alda

Editor’s Note: Here we have a book review contributed by Mollie Enright. Mollie is a graduate student in inorganic chemistry at the University of Toledo studying iron-catalyzed coupling reactions. Be like Mollie and make this a green read by finding this book in your local or institutional library rather than purchasing it, many libraries have free audiobooks available even! 

A career in science is not for the faint of heart. The hours are long, the material is challenging, and there is always more to learn. However, there’s one aspect of science that I’d argue to be one of the most brutal tests in our love for discovering the deepest truths of the universe: The Boring Lecture. Those long talks we sit through on highly specialized content delivered by the driest, most unengaging speakers who are completely unaware of our glazed eyes, stifled yawns, and complete lack of understanding or enthusiasm for their work. To these scientists, Alan Alda asks, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”

As a graduate student, my life is pretty dependent on my ability to communicate well. The demands to publish aside, I need to be able to represent myself and my research effectively to my committee, to my department in my second- and fourth-year talks, and at conferences. One of my biggest fears is to be the giver of The Boring Lecture. Alda is an American actor and founder of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science® at Stony Brook University. In his 2017 book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, Alda shares his philosophy for effective communication and gives insight into the methods he uses to help train scientists to better present their work and ideas.  After having this book recommended to me by both a fellow graduate student and by an emeritus professor within the same semester, I stopped by the library and snagged it to read while I waited for some reactions to finish.

I could not put it down.

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Book Cover Photo Credit: www.goodreads.com

Alda suggests that the key to good communication is connection, specifically through empathy, with those with whom we’re attempting to communicate. Reflecting on the training he received as an actor, he starts off the book with a simple question: “Could scientists become more personal, more available to their audiences if they studied improvisation?” Spoiler alert: the answer is yes! As he works with scientists, engineers, and health professionals through improv theater games, he breaks down the walls between speaker and audience to build a platform of active listening and authentic conversation.

Here are some of my favorite takeaways:

Communicating well is the responsibility of the communicator, not the listener. 

In one of the improv games, students are split into pairs with one designated as the leader and the other the follower. The follower is charged with mirroring the leader’s movements exactly. If the leader moves too fast, the follower can’t keep up. It’s up to the leader to slow down and help the follower track alongside him. To do this, the leader also has to be in tune with the follower. Early on in the book, Alda explains “Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something. It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you… communication is a group experience.” Empathy, the awareness of what another person is thinking and/or feeling, allows us to better understand how our audiences is relating with us and to adjust our language and tone to connect with them.

The Curse of Knowledge

Later, he describes another game, this time with two teams. One team is asked to choose a simple song, like Happy Birthday, to tap out with their fingers. The other team has to identify the song. The tapping team is always confident that the other team will be able to guess their song. In reality, the listeners are able to guess correctly only about 2 to 3 percent of the time. Alda points out that, “Once we know something, it is hard to unknow it, to remember what it’s like to be the beginner. It keeps us from considering the listener.”

The Power of Narrative

In chapter 17, “Emotion Makes it Memorable”, Alda shares conversations with scientists and educators to draw a conclusive relationship between memory and emotion. So, if we can create an emotional response in someone, they’ll more likely remember what we’ve said. But how do we excite emotions with people how have no connection to what we’re talking about? The answer is through stories. Rather than presenting a list of facts, we have the opportunity to engage our audience through a question and take them through a narrative of suspense that reaches a turning point to bring a resolution. I love the way Alda describes the drama of science:

For me, the acknowledgment of the opposing thought is one of the things that makes science such a dramatic thing to watch. The scientist says, in effect, “It looks like something is happening here – but am I wrong?” And then the opposing thought, that courageous application of doubt, takes us on an adventure of risk, tension, suspense – the emotional turmoil of experiment. And finally, we reach a turning point where, identifying with the scientist, we either achieve new understanding or we don’t. And that leads to the story’s resolution – a new way of seeing, a sense of meaning that we didn’t have before.

I think it’s easy to forget the greater drama in our narrative as researchers when we’re ones in the trenches, slowly digging up answers one experiment at a time. But when it’s time to share the results, presenting the work as a story with purpose and excitement helps our audience better see, and remember, its value.