Lessons learned from Alan Alda’s talk: Bringing science on a blind date

By Elena Suglia and Easton White


Scientists create knowledge that benefits all, but the scientific process shouldn't end with discovery. Science is a public good and its benefits should be shared with the rest of society. With increasing anti-science sentiments in the US, it is crucial for the public to be engaged in the scientific process and understand the services science provides. Prior to the early 2000s, researchers attributed public hostility to science to a lack of understanding due to a lack of information. This information deficient model posited that scientists could increase scientific literacy and decrease skepticism towards science by conveying facts and data more effectively to the public. Though some scientists continue to prescribe to this model, it has been proven ineffective, and in fact, recent research has shown that an inundation of information can cause people to become more firmly entrenched in their beliefs, regardless of scientific accuracy. Today, it is generally thought that the best way to improve public engagement with science is by communicating with, rather than to, the public by focusing more on a dialogue between citizens and scientists. How can scientists engage in effective dialogue with the public?

The key to being a better communicator may just be dialing empathy up a notch, according to M*A*S*H actor-turned-science-communication-guru Alan Alda, who spoke about just that at the Chancellor’s Colloquium at UC Davis on January 31st. Putting work and intentional effort into being a better human can naturally translate into being a better communicator, because when it comes down to it, communication may be what makes us human in the first place! Alda explained the hypothesis that socialization arising from communication is what made modern humans more successful as a species than Neanderthals. Technology was one difference between modern humans and Neanderthals, but communication is a prerequisite for technological advances. Picture one of our ancestors carving a tool and showing off her invention to her friend in the next cave. That friend might make modifications, then pass along that knowledge to someone else and thus spread new technologies quickly. But what if every person had to reinvent the wheel on his own? “Imagine inventing something and not collaborating with anyone else on it,” said Alda. “What was said in cave 12 stayed in cave 12.”

Communication is all about forming and maintaining a connection with another person. Alda related this process to going on a blind date: you start with a lack of trust and a feeling of unease, then move on to attraction, which turns into infatuation and eventually develops into a stable commitment. Alda spoke about tips to facilitate each stage of this process in scicomm. Here we share a brief synopsis of his main ideas.

Alda was a well-practiced expert when it came to wooing a crowd (if you couldn’t guess from his 7 Emmy awards). By way of introduction, he strode unhurriedly to center stage, turned his back to the audience to see the screen projecting an image of the back of his head, and joked, “Oh no – I’m bald!” After smiling genially around the room for a few moments while the audience laughed, he followed up with an attention-grabber: “I want to tell you a story about a moment that changed my life.”

He walked across the stage with a faraway look in his eyes, setting the scene in a way that belied his professional acting experience. “I was in Chile, and I was curled up on a bench in the fetal position in the worst pain I’d ever felt in my life.” A stranger came to his aid, and Alda said, “I ended up in this truck going along a bumpy trail for hours to get to a hospital, because we were in the middle of nowhere.” When the doctor came in to tell him what was wrong, that was the point at which Alda had his life-changing moment: “He said, part of your intestine has gone bad. We need to take out the bad part, take the two good ends, and stitch them together.” And Alda responded, “Oh, you mean you need to do an end-to-end anastomosis.” (Laughter ensues). “The doctor looked at me and said ‘Yes! How do you know what that is?’ and I said, ‘That was the first operation I had to perform in M*A*S*H!’”

Jokes aside, this was a key interaction to Alda because it perfectly demonstrated the right way to communicate a complicated concept to someone: “He looked me in the eye, he explained the operation in simple language and he watched to see if I understood.” Alda emphasized how, despite fears that complexities cannot be explained without sacrificing accuracy, the doctor’s description was “not any less accurate when explained in simple terms.” Further, the doctor’s simple but effective language and engagement with Alda, allowed him to connect with his patient, establish trust, and help Alda feel more comfortable with the operation.

Articulating your message clearly is not enough, however. The meat of communicating to a person happens during the commitment stage, where you’ve gotten past the awkward first meeting and have decided this endeavor is worthy of sticking with. “It’s not communication until it gets into the other person’s head, and they care about it, and they want to know more,” said Alda. Throughout the talk, a common thread is to practice storytelling, which implies much more than getting across your message. Injecting personal details or emotion into a story makes it much more likely to be received well, as evidenced by the rapt attention Alda held over the audience. Each time he made a point, it was accompanied by a story with a personal connection.

Science storytelling is actually easier than it sounds! Scientists are interesting people, and the scientific process is itself a compelling story. Centering science communication on the scientist and their journey towards scientific discovery is an effective method, especially because the scientist likely faced challenges along the way. Alda demonstrated that overcoming an obstacle to reach a goal makes for a more interesting story: he had a woman from the audience pour water into a glass until it was about ¾ full and walk across the stage with the instruction to “not spill a drop.” Then, he went up to her and filled the glass until it was nearly overflowing. “Now walk back across the stage.” The audience leaned forward in their seats as she stepped forward carefully, collectively holding their breath, gasping when the glass wobbled, and groaning in dismay when it inevitably sloshed over the edge. Afterwards, Alda asked, “Which trip across the stage was more engaging?”

Storytelling also implies effective and engaging delivery. Scientists in particular often struggle with this aspect of communication – and little wonder: it is rarely emphasized in their professional training. That’s why Alda decided to teach scientists improvisational acting as a way to help them become better communicators. In partnership with Stony Brook University, he started the Center for Communicating Science in 2009 and has since been providing scicomm training to scientists of all career stages.

Improvisation is not only about acting: it’s also about paying attention to your audience. Alda demonstrated this with an exercise in which Alda and Chancellor May stood face to face on stage, and when Alda moved, Chancellor May mirrored his movements. Alda could have moved quickly and unpredictably, but instead, he waved his arms slowly, ensuring his partner could mimic his movements easily. Alda used this exercise to show the audience that it’s more the speaker’s job to pay attention to their audience’s signals than it is for the audience to absorb information from the speaker. When you’re communicating with someone, Alda said to ask yourself, “What is the person wearing? What is their name? What color are their eyes?” Being tuned in to your audience not only establishes a connection with them and builds their trust in you as a speaker, but also lays the groundwork for allowing you to respond to their cues and improvise your message as you deliver it.

As scientists and science communicators, we were inspired by Alda’s talk because he practices what he’s preaching as he’s preaching it. He engaged his audience so well that by the end of his talk, he felt more like an old friend than a lecturer, and that connection made his performance that much more memorable. Alda reminded us that communication abilities are not innate; they are skills to be learned and practiced. His success only came after decades of experience and training.

We encourage scientists to seek opportunities to hone their communication skills. First choose a medium that speaks to you, whether it be written, video, audio, or in-person. Then, choose your outlet: we’ve written a separate blog post here that lists some opportunities at UC Davis and online. Let us work to ensure that science remains a vibrant, valued part of our society by better engaging the public in scientific discovery and the pursuit of knowledge.