skip navigation nih record
Vol. LXIII, No. 7
April 1, 2011

previous story

next story

Alda Offers Ways To Improve Science Communication

On the front page...

Actor Alan Alda, who once directed the powers of geniality, wit and intelligence on the intractable rigidity of the Army in his role as physician Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running TV comedy M*A*S*H, is now unleashing the same positive energy on another implacable institution: academic science.

One of four guest speakers at a Mar. 1 STEP forum titled “Look Who’s Talking: Communicating Your Message Fearlessly and Flawlessly,” Alda demonstrated how the tools of his profession, specifically improvisational acting, can benefit the human-to-human contact that most effectively transmits scientific information.


Actor Alan Alda
Actor Alan Alda

Currently a visiting professor at Stony Brook University's Center for Communicating Science, Alda said that simple curiosity spurred him to put aside a successful career as actor, writer and director and become host, for more than a decade, of the PBS television series Scientific American Frontiers.

Immediately likeable and speaking extemporaneously, Alda said the best communication about science he ever received was when he fell acutely ill while pursuing a story about astronomy on a mountaintop in Chile. Expertly diagnosed with a blocked intestine, Alda said his doctor "leaned in to me and said, 'We're gonna cut out the bad section, then join the two good ends together.'"

To which the world-famous TV doctor replied, "Oh, an end-to-end anastomosis! That's the first operation I learned about on M*A*S*H. But with [the doctor's] simple words, I could picture exactly what he was going to do. If he couldn't do it, I was ready to do it."

Alda participates in an improvisational exercise called “Hitchhiker.” That is NCI’s Cindy Davis behind “the wheel.” In the same improv exercise, NIEHS’s Jerry Phelps (l) is a passenger in the “vehicle,” now driven by Alda.
Alda participates in an improvisational exercise called “Hitchhiker.” That is NCI’s Cindy Davis behind “the wheel.” In the same improv exercise, NIEHS’s Jerry Phelps (l) is a passenger in the “vehicle,” now driven by Alda.

The pursuit of such clarity and simplicity has informed Alda’s interview style in his new career as a science communication avatar.

“We didn’t do conventional interviews on our show,” he explained. “We only did the show because I was curious. My method was to ask and listen until I understood. That made for a lively experience on both sides.

“When people are relating [to one another], you can’t take your eyes off of them…We [viewers] instinctively want to understand the connection,” he explained.

Alda said his “path-changing moment” occurred while interviewing a woman scientist on camera. He realized that she was lecturing the camera, not speaking to him. “She became almost immediately incomprehensible” while addressing the inert machine, he said, so he “coaxed her back” with a series of naïve questions.

“You’ve got to have emotion if you want people to pay attention,” says Alda.
“You’ve got to have emotion if you want people to pay attention,” says Alda.

“Right away she became warmer and more responsive,” he recalls. “She switched from lecture mode to real conversation.”

Alda concedes that lecture mode is hard to avoid, but warns that an inability to overcome it will result in failure to reach policymakers, the public and Congress about the importance of supporting science.

“This is a scary time,” he said. “The air is thick with budget-cutting…Communication is very weak between science and Congress.”

What baffles him is that “people are doing science of the most intriguing kind, so why can’t they intrigue their representatives in Congress?”

The solution, which brought him to Stony Brook in 2009, is to train science graduate students in the dramatic arts, specifically improvisational acting. Improv demands, above all, that humans attend carefully to one another.

“I am convinced that methodical, rigorous training over time can make any scientist a better communicator,” he said. “But it can’t be a last-minute add-on [to a science curriculum].”

Alda has discovered that “the public doesn’t think like scientists.the value of evidence is not widely appreciated.

Alda gets a tour of the Clinical Research Center from its director Dr. John Gallin.

Alda gets a tour of the Clinical Research Center from its director Dr. John Gallin.

Photos: Bill Branson

"The public is on kind of a blind date with science," he explained; the two parties are "not quite sure who we're talking to. And as we all know, blind dates can be disastrous. I think you can get over the blind-date problem with the three stages of love—lust, or being attracted, infatuation and commitment."

Alda emphasized the importance of emotion in human communication. "You've got to have emotion if you want people to pay attention."

In the course of creating an award-winning PBS series titled The Human Spark, Alda sought to determine what defines humanness. "What we most often heard is that what makes us human is our ability to be social," he said. Finding out what's going on in the mind of another person is inherently fascinating. "Why would you drop that when communicating something as important as science?" he wondered.

It dawned on him that improv, the only acting training he ever received, could be therapeutically applied to engineering majors, so he crafted a clinical trial.

"Improv teaches you how to be available to others, who are not your enemy but your partners," he explained. It reduces social fears and encourages partners "to be present to one another."

Alda videotaped the students describing their work both before a series of improv exercises and after, then showed the Masur audience the results: stiff and wooden before, natural and outgoing after, in virtually every instance.

At a dinner in Bethesda the night before the STEP event, Alda met with NIH’ers including Dr. Sherry Mills (above), director of the Office of Extramural Programs, OER, and NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (below).

Aware of science's rigorous standards of proof, Alda is not content to let anecdotal evidence of his training's effectiveness argue for its inclusion in all American science curricula. He issued a number of caveats.

"Our goal is to achieve clarity and vividness [in science communication], not to dumb it down," he said. "We're not trying to turn scientists into actors." His program is accumulating "data we can trust" that will be subject to formal evaluation, he said.

Meanwhile, it is proving popular on campus. "At Brookhaven [National Laboratory] and at Cold Spring Harbor [Laboratory], the scientists were very eager to participate," Alda said. "We've had several groups of 10 to 20 scientists participate in six 3-hour sessions." Representatives from some 50 universities are coming to Stony Brook this summer for training, he said. The workshops cover both written and personal presentation.

"It's fun to tell our stories, and to become emotionally involved," he said. "It makes us lust for knowledge. Let's fall in love!"

The 4-hour STEP session ended with demonstrations of improv given by five Stony Brook students, dubbed the "Stony Brook Bunsen Burners." They illustrated Alda's point that improv has little to do with being clever or funny (except incidentally) and all to do with a willingness to reach out to another human being.

The event is archived at (HHS only) and includes presentations by three other communication experts: Barrett Whitener of IQ Solutions offered an architecture of lecture preparation and presentation; Dr. Stephen Kosslyn of Stanford University showed how insights from psychology can improve PowerPoint presentations; and Nan Tolbert of the Communication Center, who has media-trained many top NIH officials, emphasized the importance of a dynamic stage presence.


back to top of page