Alan Alda’s example of perfect communication involved him coming a bit closer to dying than he would have liked.
It happened about 15 years ago when he started experiencing extraordinary pain in his abdomen while visiting an observatory in Chile. After talking to a medic at the observatory, who Alda described as less than helpful, an ambulance took him to an emergency room, where a doctor quickly identified the problem. The issue, as Alda described it, was that about a yard of his intestine lost its blood supply and was dead or dying. He would be too, if the problem wasn’t rectified.
It was a story he told a packed Lee Hall Bettersworth Auditorium at Mississippi State University Monday night. The doctor, Alda told his audience, explained the problem and what had to be done to fix it, very clearly.
“I remember so clearly how he leaned down and looked in my face,” Alda, age 82, said. “He said, ‘Here’s what’s happened. Some of your intestine has gone bad and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna do an end-to-end anastomosis,'” Alda continued, to laughs from his audience. “(The doctor) said, ‘How do you know that?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I did many of them on M*A*S*H*.'”
‘Talk to people like they’re your friends’
Alda, a famous, award-winning actor best known for his role as Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce on the M*A*S*H* television series, visited MSU to speak about the importance of communication in science. His address kicked off an Alda-Kavli workshop for university research faculty focused on communicating effectively about science.
Alda works with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which was founded in 2009 at Stony Brook University in New York.
The Chilean doctor, Alda said, was a great example of communication because he told Alda what he needed to know in plain, easy-to-understand language.
Sometimes in scientific fields, he said, it can be hard for people who are experts in their areas to relay their knowledge to their audience. Alda called it “the curse of knowledge.”
“It’s something we all suffer from,” he said. “I suffer from it. You suffer from it. When we know something so deeply — we understand it in all its intricate detail — we forget what it’s like to talk to somebody who’s hearing it for the first time.
“If you understand something so deeply that you can’t get out of that knowledge — that intricate knowledge — and get to where the audience is, you’re going to be in trouble,” he added.
As an example, Alda had an audience member tap out the rhythm to “The Star Spangled Banner” on the stage podium, without any notes to go with it. Some in the crowd, at Alda’s asking, guessed it might have been the “Happy Birthday” song, or “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Only one person guessed correctly.
Alda said the example showed how something that seems clear in the mind of a presenter — in this case, the person tapping the song — might not be so easy to understand for an audience.
During another part of the lecture, Alda spoke about the role of storytelling in communicating effectively. He said he often talks to scientists who say they don’t have any stories, but he argues that’s not true.
“There’s a story to everything — especially science,” Alda said. “Science progresses in fits and starts, and there’s all kinds of blind alleys you go down and experiments that don’t work.
“That’s all on the way to discovering something,” he continued, “and sometimes those failures are the most interesting parts. A beaker breaks and two months of work goes down the drain. Your graduate student comes in drunk. Maybe that doesn’t happen every day.”
Alda said it’s important to be mindful of the audience and speak to their level. He suggested avoiding jargon and talking to people conversationally, as anyone would to their friends.
“It’s knowing your audience in real time — in utter, intimate connection,” he said. “When you get used to that, to playing these games and developing messages based on that, you go out and talk to people like they’re your friends.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.