At 81, Alan Alda is still best known as the star of TV’s “M*A*S*H.”
But the artist mostly known as Hawkeye also has been fascinated, and frustrated, by science.
Alda, who hosted PBS' “Scientific American Frontiers” from 1993 to 2005, was frustrated that men and women of science were not able to get their points across – to the public, the media, the government. Turned out they had never been trained to do so.
So Alda set out to do something about it. What he learned is the focus of his latest book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?”
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Aided by his warm, conversational style, Alda’s message shows that the lessons also apply to the rest of us – and at a time when we could really use it.
In 2009, Alda founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York. Combining academic research with theater training, the center has trained more than 7,000 scientists and doctors to communicate better.
A lot of it centers on an appreciation of the power of empathy. Sharing stories of acting and improv exercises – including some he conducted at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, where he led a master class in 2013 – Alda shows how making a human connection is “the bedrock of communicating.”
Unlike many transformed experts, Alda isn’t convinced he has all the answers. In one chapter, he offers three practical tips and then adds a fourth: Beware of relying on experts’ tips vs. your own experiences.
“There’s a stretch of road I’ve driven down many times where I used to ignore the speed limit sign. One afternoon, I got a speeding ticket and I never ignored the speed limit again,” he wrote. “The sign was a tip. The ticket was the experience.”
Such personal stories, Alda notes, can be a bridge from an abstract concept to understanding, because we’re all wired to relate to them. Telling and listening to them brings both sides closer together.
In another of Alda’s stories, he and his 6-year-old grandson discover an unusual tree. The boy asks him, “How did it get like that?” Thrilled with his curiosity, Alda jumps at the teaching moment to talk about evolution – for 45 minutes.
The next day, the grandson asked his cousin a different question. When she told him that sounded like a topic for grandpa, the boy replied, “I’m not making that mistake again.”
In telling that story, Alda shows the value of finding common ground; he’s not just an actor, he’s a grandpa trying to engage with his grandson.
By telling it, Alda reinforces a key point made earlier in “If I Understood You”: “The more we establish familiarity with our audience – not speaking to them from left field or from on high – the better chance we have that they'll listen to what we have to say. And possibly even accept it.”
In a time when it seems like they’re more talking than listening, it’s a hopeful lesson.
“If I Understood You”
By Alan Alda (Random House, $28)