Science Communication Advice from Alan Alda


This one is for the scientists!

I saw Alan Alda speak this evening at UCSD about “Helping the public get beyond a blind date with science.” He made a case for telling your science story in personal, simple, engaging language. He also told us about the efforts at the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to prepare graduate students with communication tools. He was funny and grandfatherly and such a good presenter himself. I’d like to share the insights I gained about getting people to listen to and understand you, especially with science.

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I got there late, because UCSD parking sucks, so this photo is from quite far away.

Be conversational, not lecture-y

One of Alda’s first important points was that scientists communicate differently when they are speaking one-on-one with someone instead of presenting a lecture. It is not only the jargon-y fanciness of the words that differs, but the speaker’s tone will tend to be colder and less personal in lecture mode. And when scientists speak about science, we often fall into lecture mode out of habit.

He uses the analogy of falling in love to explain how we can engage the public. Right now science is a “blind date” to the public– an unfamiliar person in the room making them uncomfortable. Alda says “there are three parts to falling in love – and if you haven’t heard of them before, it’s because I made them up,” and these are 1) attraction, 2) infatuation, and 3) commitment.  As an analogy, these stages to love translate to: 1) first impressions when you are communicating, such as welcoming body language, a warm tone, and personal language; 2) memorability, which happens when your audience has an emotional response (any emotional response helps someone to remember that moment); 3) commitment, and I didn’t catch this one from Alda, but I think commitment means your audience will remember scientists to be trustworthy, comfortable sources for information and discussion.

Be a story-teller                                

Tonight Alda told us a lot of stories. Because of this style, we laughed and followed each point he made easily and willingly. And one of his main points was that people like to hear stories.

What makes a good story? This is definitely not something we learn as scientists, except to make “a story” out of our data so it fits into the bigger picture. But he made a point to show that it simply involves an objective (that matters) and the obstacles that must be faced to attain that objective. Alda’s example used a woman from the audience, and she had to carry an overfilled glass of water across the stage without spilling (or her village would die). Our objective would seem to be the significance section of our proposals, so we already have that part floating in our grant-writing brains, and it mustn’t be left out of our public communications. The names of the proteins can be. And words longer than three syllables.

Another important thing about stories is the emotional element, as I mentioned, since people remember things when they have an emotional response to them. Use emotion words. Socialization is our greatest strength as a species, and so much can be gained from plain communication with each other.

 Where does communicating science fit into science?

This issue seems like an ongoing discussion.

Why do we need to be better at telling the public about our science? For one, the general public contributes to science through taxes and thus it is a voter’s issue. Informed voters are crucial to a better society. Obviously. Two, we want them to trust us when we recommend things like vaccines. Three, we should be smart enough to recognize when we need to improve ourselves, eh?

The public aside, Alda brought up a good point about scientists from different fields not clearly communicating with each other. This language barrier is no secret among scientists, as there is a sense of pride among at least the younger scientists that may prevent asking about jargon clarification instead of big picture questions. I’ll admit I avoid neuroscience talks.

The moral of this story is that we need to practice talking about science as people and not scientists. It’s not easy, which is why Alda has created an institute to teach it to grad students, while they are still being molded into scientists. I’ve heard a number of other scientists say, ”why should we bother explaining things to the public when we have important things to do in lab?” But it is more about being prepared for interactions with a lay-audience, and like I said, being able to communicate clearly with other scientists. Just think of the ideas that could come out of increased understanding among different science fields! Increased understanding of what scientists do, how they do it, leading to increased interest by the next generations, and to top it off, better scientific ideas flowing between scientists? Why wouldn’t we want better science communication?


A recent interview with Alan Alda:



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