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Vol. LXVII, No. 13
June 19, 2015
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Witty Repartee
Alda, Rosenblatt Share Communication Advice with NIH

On the front page...

Intelligence is always celebrated in Masur Auditorium; wit, not so much. That changed with (from l) Alan Alda, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Roger Rosenblatt on May 21.

Intelligence is always celebrated in Masur Auditorium; wit, not so much. That changed with (from l) Alan Alda, NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Roger Rosenblatt on May 21.

Masur Auditorium is not known for gales of laughter that sweep through the audience during town hall meetings and scientific talks. But it might as well have been the site of The Colbert Report in its prime on May 21, when actor/director Alan Alda and his old friend, writer Roger Rosenblatt, joined NIH director Dr. Francis Collins for an unscripted conversation before a packed hall.

It was as though the final talk in the ninth year of the NIMH Director’s Innovation Speaker Series mistook itself for the round table at the Algonquin Hotel back in the 1920s, when writer Dorothy Parker held witty salons.

Everyone was prepared for Alda’s humor. Heck, he’s Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H, a ball of irreverent and intelligent fun. His mellow geniality proved infectious though, turning his talk mates into competitive quipsters. The audience ate it up.

Continued...

In introductory remarks, Collins predicted “a fun-loving, fairly informal conversation, but we’ll also try for some substance from time to time.”

Even seasoned communicators at NIH concede there was a cache of wisdom couched amid the chuckles.

“Writing is the way we can trust one another,” said Rosenblatt, “and gather with one another what means the most to us…We live in the world of narration.”

Replied Alda, “We remember things that have an emotional tinge to them. I’m not saying that you need to have a nervous breakdown…”

“But it’s memorable when it happens,” noted Collins.

For the past 6 years, Alda has helped run the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Four years ago, he visited NIH to demonstrate, via improvisational acting, the ingenious ways humans find to share information with one another. Collins’ first question dealt with the origins of Alda’s interest in science.

“I’ve been interested since I was a boy, about 6 years old,” said Alda. “I remember mixing my mom’s face powder with toothpaste, trying to see if it would blow up.”

Alda began reading Scientific American, a habit he continues to this day, in search of information that is “accurate, but accessible to people like me—interested, but not an expert.”

Alda (l), Collins (c) and Rosenblatt took turns discussing ways to communicate more clearly. Humor was a common ally.

Alda (l), Collins (c) and Rosenblatt took turns discussing ways to communicate more clearly. Humor was a common ally.

Photos: Bill Branson

In the course of training thousands of scientists, from senior “stars” to young trainees, Alda says, “I found my calling.” Nonetheless, he recalled once frustrating a Chinese scientist who had been trying to explain his work on hybridizing rice.

“Alan! Pay attention!” the scientist finally yelled, grabbing Alda by the lapels.

The incident illustrated what Alda called “the curse of knowledge—when you know your topic so well, you forget what it’s like not to know.”

Alda also conducted an impromptu test, asking Collins to rap out with his fingers the melody of a popular tune; the audience’s challenge was to guess, from the beat alone, what song he was playing.

Most of the audience heard Happy Birthday, but Collins—a guitarist and piano player, not a drummer—had been carefully beating out the Star Spangled Banner.

Which was the perfect set-up for Alda: “When we know something so deeply, we hear the melody in our heads. We think the other person’s hearing the melody too, but they’re not.”

Alda said most of the scientists he trains get better and become warmer in their interactions, “but not all become amazing.” He called the tough cases “the prodigal sons, and you love them so much.”

Participants in the conversation rise to acknowledge the applause of an audience unused to laughing so much at an event in Masur Auditorium.

Participants in the conversation rise to acknowledge the applause of an audience unused to laughing so much at an event in Masur Auditorium.

He warned against the use of PowerPoint presentations, especially the sin of reading aloud what is up on the screen for all to see. “That’s not communication, that’s excommunication,” he said, to roars of laughter.

Rosenblatt admitted to being a terrible lecturer, “not even persuasive to myself,” but fared better in small groups, where it was possible to care about his audience as individuals. “The art of teaching is in part the art of learning,” he discovered. “You’re in the same boat together, moving toward some truth you can explore together.”

Alda said he ranks communicating clearly about science as an accomplishment on par with a scientific breakthrough. “I don’t think science was ever hurt by clarity,” he observed.

Rosenblatt agreed. “Clarity is the main goal. ‘What is it you want to say?’ is the principal problem for artists and scientists…The whole thing is driven by that basic question, but you’ve got to know it first.

“If there’s a key to communication,” he concluded, “it’s believing in your audience, not just believing in your subject…Respect the audience.”

Alda agreed, adding, “We want the joy of knowing…the poetry of nature. It’s so beautiful. Share it with us. That would make me so happy.”

The entire conversation can be seen at http://videocast.nih.gov/Summary.asp?file=19016&bhcp=1.


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