When Alan Alda speaks to doctors about communicating with their patients, he doesn’t start off by saying “When you talk to a patient, try not to use jargon.” Instead, he tells them a story about his appendix operation.
When Alda was in Chile filming a documentary, he suffered a life-threatening problem with his appendix. He needed an end-to-end anastomosis. This meant a yard of Alda’s intestine had to be cut out. Before surgery, his operating doctor told him that something had gone wrong with Alda’s intestine and that he needed to “cut the bad part out and sew the two good ends together”. That concise and simple explanation was more satisfying to Alda than any technical term. Alda tells this story to doctors first before getting to the “moral”: try not to use jargon with your patients.
You may know Alan Alda from his TV role as Dr. Hawkeye Pierce on MASH, or you may know him as the host of the TV series Scientific American Frontiers. More importantly, Alda founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York.
In If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Alan Alda recounts the creation of the Center and the need for its creation. One of the problems this institute tries to solve is to help scientists communicate to the next generation of potential scientists how exciting science is. Another problem the institute tries to solve is helping potential scientists communicate to potential research funders in a way that the funders can understand. How do the future scientists learn communication? Through improvisational theatre games.
When Alda first tried this at Stonybrook with a group of engineering students, he relied on a book of theatre games created by Victoria Spolin. Although most people associate improv theatre with comedy, the point is not to be funny, but to foster listening and empathy with the person you’re relating to. Alda reminds us that interaction isn’t just waiting for the other person to stop talking, it’s listening, reacting, and perhaps being changed by what the other person has said. The theatre games included pretending to make something as a group, wherein one person would start to create a sculpture, hand it off to another person who would add something to the sculpture, and then would hand it to the next person. No one could start over with something new. The spirit of improvisation is “Yes, and…” not Yes, but…”
Before these games, the students had made presentations of their works. Some students had barely made eye contact with their audience. Some stuck strictly to their PowerPoint presentations. After the theatre games, the students made their presentations again. They started making eye contact with audience members. They started checking to see if the audience understood what they were saying. They started relating better.
Later chapters in the book deal with “The flame challenge”. The idea is for scientists to explain a concept, such as “What is a Flame?” in terms an 11-year-old can understand. If you want the answer to what a flame is, go here. By the way, the 2018 challenge question is “What is climate?”. Being able to relate to a lay audience in terms a lay audience can understand is important. Of course, that means knowing your audience and what they can understand. But Alda reminds us that we’re not Star Trek Vulcans who deal with logic. It would help scientists to reach their audiences at an emotional level.
Alda recounts the creation of the world’s thinnest pane of glass. How thin? The glass was one molecule thick. So, what? It was an accidental discovery. A straight retelling of the creation of the glass without mentioning the excitement of it being an accidental discovery would not have garnered the attention of potential investors. What is the practical application of such thin glass? It’s too early to tell, but besides making it into the Guinness Book of World Records, the thin glass project received more money for research.
Suppose you wanted to convince your local school system to start High School later in the day. What are you going to tell them? That the circadian rhythm of a sixteen-year-old has changed to the point where the rise in melatonin happens AFTER 9 PM instead of before, thus pushing wakefulness to after 11 PM, and thus making wakefulness at 7 AM impossible? You better hope the school board members have read Why We Sleep or know what melatonin is. Instead, you may want to learn about the school board members. Do they have teenage children? Don’t they remember what it is like to wake them up? Can you enlist interested teachers to testify with you and tell them what it’s like to teach an early morning class? Doesn’t the school system want to improve graduation rates and test scores? Yep. Stats are one thing, but Alan Alda would probably suggest appealing to the school board’s sense of pride.