Have you ever tried to describe what you are passionate about to a stranger? How about trying to convince the average person why your passion could be very important to them? Welcome to the everyday struggle of those who study the complexities of our world. Scientists, researchers, and innovators, who need to communicate what they’re learning with all of us so we can make more informed decisions.
Think about it: if your greatest passion involved physics, complex data, or engineering you’d probably have a hard time keeping the person across from you from nodding off as you did your best to explain, right?
But here’s the thing, the research that is on the cutting edge—beyond most of our realms of understanding—is very often the work pushing every one of us forward to a better world. It’s filled with information and discoveries we’ll all find exciting! We just need to hear about it in ways we can understand.
So, how can scientists and researchers convey the important work they are doing in a language we can all understand and be excited by?
The fabulous actor Alan Alda—known best for his role on the show M*A*S*H—has spent the past 20 years making science more accessible to us all. As the host of PBS’s Scientific American Frontiers, he covered some of the most cutting edge research in science, engineering, and medicine.
As he interviewed these thought leaders and researchers, he realized that a key part of the show’s success was the way in which he was able to help them clearly communicate their work: Moving the information from lofty and hard to follow jargon to language that could, and did, capture people’s attention.
So in 2009, he launched the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Using a technique they call “The Alda Method” the Center puts on workshops that teach academics, medical professionals, and scientists to communicate more clearly by teaching them improvisational techniques. While most of us are familiar with improv comedy, Alda uses improv to help professionals cultivate their skills of empathy, listening, and understanding!
To understand the profound impact these techniques have on the people that go through their workshops, we have a great piece for you from one of our favorite YouTube Channels out there: Great Big Story.
You may think the combination of high-level scientist and improv a strange combination, but it really works! Check it out:
You forget what you didn’t know when you were starting out…
We are all guilty of using jargon that would have perplexed us before we were experts. It’s easy not to recognize when we’ve lost our listener along the way in our explanations and instead just continue to plow through.
The thing is, we’ve all felt what our listener has felt before. How often have you read a report or listened to an expert and felt like you were being sprayed with a firehose of information? Between the confusing words and all the facts, you’re lost!
“We develop such specialized words that they are not understood by people just a little distance from our expertise.”—Alan Alda
And it’s not just scientists and researchers who can learn from all this. When was the last time you had to explain something technical to someone with far less knowledge on the subject?
We can all benefit from the skills Alda is helping his students cultivate.
Improv is all about paying better attention. Learning to read the person across from you and search out opportunities for success for both parties. Cultivating these skills of empathy and sense of shared success have made it a valuable teaching tool beyond the world of science communication. Now, improv is even being used to improve the world of business. If you’re interested in learning more about this side of things you can check out this article from Forbes.
What are some habits we can start to cultivate?
In a great interview with Big Think, Alan Alda sat down to talk about the work the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science is doing. This interview is an insightful look at the ways we all fail to communicate effectively and how we can improve our skills!
If you haven’t yet discovered Big Think, take some time to check them out. They interview some of the world’s greatest thought leaders; bringing together their encyclopedic knowledge on all kinds of subjects into one place. It’s an amazing resource for all kinds of life, career, and creative advice from experts!
So it’s on us to develop the kind of interpersonal communication skills that make for great conversation and deeper learning!
Learning how to read the people sitting across from is us just as important as how we say things. When we truly connect with them, look them in the eyes and look for those flashes of misunderstanding, we know to switch course and work to help the other person understand.
Imagine a world where we all communicated like this. How much better informed would we all be?
What if scientists could better communicate the importance of research that could benefit us all? Or if our educators were more extensively trained to see when students were having trouble understanding?
If we were able to better communicate our thoughts, opinions, or feelings with our loved ones, where would we be?
Our choice of words does matter, but as Alda so rightly points out that doesn’t make great communication all on its own. Good communication happens when the other person is able to deeply understand. A process made possible when we are able to read and react to our audiences.
So, whether your a scientist, educator, parent, or simply trying to explain your ideas to another person, take a moment to pause and connect with the person across from you. What are you saying now that you wouldn’t have understood when you were just starting out?
Meet the other person where they are at! Not only will you leave less frustrated with the process of explanation, but your listener will also leave uplifted and more knowledgable.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
- Great Big Story. “How Alan Alda Is Helping Scientists Translate Jargon.” YouTube, Great Big Story, 22 Feb. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OeZXRpM2R0. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019. ↩
- Big Think. “Good Communication 101: Mirroring, Jargon, Hifalutin Words | Alan Alda.” YouTube, Big Think, 31 May 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZzWArYi5Yc. Accessed 13 Mar. 2019. ↩