An actor and some scientists walk into a bar…
Sounds like the start of a terrible joke, but Alan Alda thinks mixing science and acting makes a worthy experiment.
Opaque explanations of science have long exasperated the one-time M*A*S*H star. In a recent interview, Alda recounts asking his elementary school teacher to explain what a flame was. The teacher told him it was “oxidation.” The muddiness of that answer vexed him, and these days, the grown-up Alda is on a mission to teach scientists how to communicate. Each year, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science hosts a contest evaluating scientists on their ability explain ideas like color and time to 11-year-olds.
What lessons does Alda’s work with scientists hold for leadership communications?
(1) Take a cue from improv Successful improv comedy, says Alda, prompts “people to communicate and observe one another, to read each other’s minds.” Great improv actors thrive off of feedback from their scene partners, riffing on other people's actions.
(2) Know the difference between clarity and condescension As Alda explains, communicating complicated topics effectively requires “clarity, not dumbing it down.” Alda advises scientists to explain complicated concepts to an audience as they would to a very smart kid. “Just imagine,” Alda writes, “What would you answer if an 11-year-old looked up at you, eyes glinting with innocent curiosity and asked, ‘What is time?’”
(3) Minimize jargon One of Alda’s cardinal rules for scientists is to stay away from “insider’s jargon.” Alda likens scientists’ reliance on heavy-duty vocabulary words to having a song stuck in your head – “It's very hard to believe when you hear the melody, that [your audience is] not hearing the melody too." In this case, it’s necessary to play out your “melody” for the audience. One way to accomplish this is by simplifying your vocabulary. Explaining something in a few short words will go farther than using one long complex one.
(4) Connect Later in his career, as host of the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, Alda marveled at how scientists who were dry and incomprehensible in a lecture were warm and engaging in person. “What would bring out the real them if I’m not there?” he asked himself. “What would keep them from going into ‘lecture mode’?”
At one workshop, Alda advised participants to explain technical concepts in ways that are “common to all of us – imagery, words, affect.” Alda instructed the scientists “let emotion come in” to their conversations and lectures to better connect with their audience.
To sum up, communication – whether a one-on-one chat or in front of thousands – is personal. Many of us, like the scientists Alda works with, resort to “lecture mode” when presenting and forget about the people on the other end.
“We give a lot of thought to how to say things,” Alda reflects, “when in fact, how it’s being received is much more crucial.”
Alda’s advice rings true for all of us—in the lab or in the boardroom.