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If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda

IMG_0047Alan Alda is well known for his acting career, but the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear his name isn't M*A*S*H but Scientific American Frontiers. He hosted that show for something like 11 years and feed the flames of his passion for communicating science to general audiences. It certainly worked for me, though I knew in high school that I'd never really be a scientist.

I took physics in my senior year of high school, as you do, and I wasn't a bad student but I never did particularly well on the tests. Then one day I missed a test due to illness, so she had me do a make up test after school the next day. However, she didn't give me the same test, rather I had to explain the various theories that were covered on the test instead of solving math equations. I aced it.

Would that I were more perceptive person, dear reader, for it would have been at that moment in which I would have figured out the course of the rest of my life. Instead I went off to college and decided to major in physics. That lasted about one semester, after which my lack of higher math skills was confirmed. Again.

It took me several years to figure out that communicating complicated ideas is my strong suit, though I am by no means an expert on this practice (but I keep trying!). Which leads me to this book.

I was aware of Alda's work with scientists to teach them effective communication skills, and since I communicate technical issues to non-technical audiences for a living I figured I could learn a thing or two from this book.

The book itself is as charming as you would expect for a book written by a man who makes a living being charming. Alda wraps stories around all of his lessons (don't call them “tips,” he's not a fan of tips) which grounds them in reality (and proves that his methods are effective since he extols the virtue of storytelling throughout the book).

The keys to successfully communicating, according to Alda, are:

  • Empathy - Try to get into the mindset of the people you're communicating with.
  • Storytelling - Don't start with the facts, lure people in with a story and then slip in the things you want them to know.
  • Improv - This is mostly a tool to learn the first two things.

Alda uses the 200ish pages of his book to illustrate these points with interviews with scientists, a little bit of research, and a heaping helping of anecdotes (I particularly liked the thing he does with a glass of water and an audience member).

This quote from the book, said by Steve Strogatz, does a pretty good job so summing up the whole thing: “the trouble with a lecture is that it answers questions that haven't been asked.”

Now, I should point out that I rarely read non-fiction and even more rarely read memoirs of which this sorta kinda is. The reason? I always bristle at the tendency of people to make themselves the heroes of their own stories. Alda does a little bit of this, but his charm and clear language managed to overcome my dislike for this trope.

Who should read it: Anyone who wants to think about how to communicate their ideas with others. Fans of Alan Alda.

Would I read it again: Probably not, but I will think about some of the things he mentions when I writing for an audience.

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