By Kelly Quigley
Most science writers already appreciate the actor Alan Alda for much more than his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV show M*A*S*H. For more than a decade, Alda’s been training scientists to become better communicators — both through his New York-based center and his bestselling book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” His work in this area even earned him the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal, back in 2016.
Now, under a partnership just announced with La Jolla-based Scripps Research (where I work as senior science writer and communications officer), Alda’s improv-inspired trainings will also be available to scientists from an outpost right here in San Diego. Starting in June, Alda Communication Training will hold a series of two-day “immersion” workshops on Scripps Research’s campus, located just north of UC San Diego, in the heart of the Torrey Pines Mesa science cluster.
Each workshop is designed to teach scientists how to transform jargon-filled research into stories that engage the public. Alda himself doesn’t teach the workshops, but the trainers use his approach, aptly called the “Alda Method,” to help scientists empathize with their audience and rethink how they explain their important work. At a January 16 event at Scripps Research, Alda took the stage to talk about how this method developed and why he feels so passionately about bringing it to the West Coast.
A Passion Born on TV
As Alda tells it, his passion for helping scientists tell their stories crystallized during the 11 years he hosted a PBS series called “Scientific American Frontiers.” Through on-camera interviews with scientists, he found he had a knack for getting uber-educated experts to open up and explain their work in relatable way.
“I was bringing out their humanity by my own curiosity, by the way I related to them, which I developed through studying improvisation as an actor,” he told the audience at Scripps Research auditorium. “That made a big difference.”
Molded by this experience, Alda helped launch the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York in 2009. The big idea was — and is — to give scientists the tools to communicate better with those who aren’t already familiar with their work. That may be government officials, philanthropists, patient groups, scientists from other disciplines, and yes, even science writers.
As a pleasant side effect of the training, Alda says many scientists find they also communicate better with colleagues in the lab — and that it may have even helped a marriage or two.
Alda’s Stonybrook nonprofit, which has trained more than 15,000 scientists to date, works hand-in-hand with Alda Communication Training Co. to run the events. The new partnership with Scripps Research provides the program with a West Coast home for the first time; previously, scientists would have to travel to New York or companies would hire the group for special in-house trainings.
The two-day workshops at Scripps Research are expected to draw a mix of scientists from both academia and industry. So far, three immersion workshops are scheduled for 2020 and enrolling participants: June 4-5, October 1-2 and December 3-4.
Elevating the Art of Science Writing
Though the workshops themselves are not geared toward science writers, they certainly hold potential to advance our field by inspiring scientists to prioritize communication and explain their work in a more relatable way. After all, “it’s not the responsibility of the person who’s listening to understand,” Alda told the audience, “it’s the job of the [scientist] to make it clear.”
During the event, Alda gave credit to science writers for taking “a great risk in representing the work of scientists,” but said that even with the most talented science reporters writing about discoveries, he still prefers to hear scientists tell their own story “because they are the ones devoting their lives to it.”
Unlike media training sessions that many biotech companies and scientific institutes provide for their top scientists, the Alda workshops don’t focus on sticking to talking points or staying on message.
“It’s not about finding the perfect words,” Alda explained. “Communication is not simply the transfer of information. It’s getting into the head of the other person in a way that engages them and gives them the opportunity to respond to you. And suddenly you are both exploring an idea together. That, to me, is communication. Unless we can do that with the public and government agencies and funders, science will be hurt by it.”
If you work with scientists who could benefit from the training, you can find more information at scripps.edu/alda or aldacommunicationtraining.com/workshops. You’re also welcome to contact me with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.