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In Spring 2011, Alan Alda gave a lecture at the NIH Bethesda campus, just as I was getting ready to move to the west coast. I had seen him a million times on TV and in movies, usually as a comedian. Most people probably just wanted to see an entertainment giant and were not there to hear his message.

He was taller than I expected, bearded, venerable and conversational. The twinkle in his eyes we had seen as Hawkeye in M*A*S*H was still there, but his warnings hit me like an anvil: science was failing us…we needed to do something about this…and we needed to do it soon! We were losing credibility and the public was not listening to us. We were losing a new generation of scientists.

“Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.”  Alan Alda

I listened and watched intently…his words were like an echo…he was saying things I already knew. As a Program Director at NIH, researchers from all over the country were contacting me, trying to find ways to persuade grant reviewers and philanthropists to fund their projects. Although highly educated, these brilliant scientists were struggling to explain their work to people outside their lab. They couldn’t explain the main point of their project, went off on tangents, talked way too long about unimportant details, and left me (and nearly everyone else!) more confused than when we started talking.  Quite simply, they did not know how to communicate their research to the public.

“Why would you give money to somebody whose work you don’t understand?” Alan Alda

Alda had a similar experience when trying to interview renowned science experts for American Scientific Frontiers, a TV show he hosted for 11 seasons on PBS.   Many of the scientists rambled, mumbled, and tended to give academic lectures rather than talk. They were stiff, did not smile, and wouldn’t look at him. They appeared cold, unfriendly and untrustworthy.

“I think it’s important for scientists to speak in their own voices and not just be mediated by journalists or others speaking for them.” Alan Alda

He was right: scientists need to explain to the public who they are and what they do. The effect poor communication is having on the scientific community is shocking. Not only are scientists unable to convince reviewers of the significance of their research, they interview poorly for jobs, can not explain their work to university administrators, colleagues, philanthropists, legislators, family and friends. Tied up in their elite world of science inaccessible to most people, they are like caterpillars within a tidy cocoon, unable to escape to become gorgeous butterflies.

“It’s very important for us to see that science is done by people, not just brains but whole human beings, and sometimes at great cost.”   Alan Alda

That day I committed myself to a new career: helping scientists present their work to the public with impact.  First, though, I needed to educate myself about effective communication techniques and how to teach them. I had to learn how to make messages memorable. I quickly jumped online and ordered Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, which outlined how to make messages have impact and be memorable. That book was followed by dozens of others in which I found ways to present scientific data in ways that are easy for non-scientists to understand.   I studied books about writing narrative nonfiction, a genre new to someone like me trained to write mainly conventional research articles. I took classes on nonverbal (body) skills, visual design, improv acting, and storytelling. I joined Toastmasters and practiced delivering a variety of talks. I honed my writing skills by submitting short op-ed pieces to the local newspaper and reviews on those communication books I was reading.

After many months of self-training, I was ready to meet Alan Alda in person … to acknowledge our shared passion…and to learn the secrets of communication. In the summer of 2012, I flew from California to New York City and took the Long Island Railroad out to Stony Brook University. There, Alda had founded a Center for Communicating Science in order to teach scientists how to explain their research to the public. In particular, he believed that if scientists could learn the techniques of improv(isation) acting, they would become better communicators. Improv teaches us to be attentive to our listeners, be in the moment, and always say, “YES!”   In contrast, scientists learn to disagree or be skeptical about everything. Scientists dislike impulse thinking and strive to say only things that are factually correct. Mistakes are not to be tolerated! Improv insists that it’s OK to make mistakes and move on.   What a relief it is to have the burden of correctness lifted and to talk fearlessly.

I am beginning to see evidence that researchers understand the importance of public communication. Young scientists, particularly graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, are eager to improve their communication skills. They want jobs, funding for their research, recognition for their accomplishments, and better learning opportunities for their students. They also want to be able to discuss the challenges as well as rewards of their work with family and friends.

Improving communication skills takes some commitment and practice. Here are five things you can do to get better:

  • Take improv acting classes: this will help prepare you to give impromptu talks and reduce any fear you have of public speaking.
  • Get together with friends to practice speaking: meet with a few friends on a regular basis to share speeches or join a speaking club such as Toastmasters.
  • Speak at local organizations (e.g., senior groups, schools, Lions Club, etc.): talk to people who are not scientists and help them understand the importance of your work.
  • Prepare a short (elevator) pitch that describes what you’re doing: these come in handy for many occasions and can turn a casual encounter with someone into an opportunity to explain your work.
  • Craft stories to describe yourself and convey information about your work: stories add a human element to your messages and are excellent for communicating science to the public.

More and more, researchers realize that science has two major components: discovery and sharing of information. In addition to “publish or perish”, researchers must now confront a new maxim: “communicate or crash”! Thanks to Alan Alda, we understand that communication advances the entire field of science.