SC15 Keynote – Alan Alda

Science Communication

Alan Alda gave a sensational keynote on communication today. What follows is largely transcription with some fudging where I wasn’t fast enough, or was too enthralled to type. I’m fast, but I’m not that fast, so this is not the whole talk, but I hope it conveys the sense of it. We came out excited and enlightened. I think that has to be called a win!

Any errors are entirely mine. 🙂

“Is there something about your work that you wish the public understood better?”

HPC is transforming our understanding of the brain. Understanding the cosmos, making batteries more efficient, making cars safer. Understanding climate change which may actually save our lives.

“I have a feeling that before the transformation that’s possible from the work that you do can take place, we may have to change the way you communicate it so that the public understands, so that the government understands.”

“That’s more than half the job of communication. How is it landing on the people you’re talking to?”

“I had conversations with about 1200 scientists over the year… we had these real conversations. I interviewed this scientist in Boston who was really interesting, and her tone was real and personal and her vocabulary I could understand, and then she started lecturing and her tone changed, her vocabulary changed, and I couldn’t understand. So I coaxed her back with some questions and all of a sudden she was talking to me again and I could understand. And I thought this was an amazing aspect of communication.

The public is on a blind date with science because they are so unfamiliar with it. To get past the blind date with science and get to this love relationship we have to go through the 3 stages of love. The first stage is attraction. The second stage is infatuation and the third stage is commitment.

Attraction, if it’s going to take place, takes place in the first couple of minutes. And the factors are body language and tone of voice. The gaze is so important. There is this tremendous difference between the words that are said and the body language and tone of voice. If they contradict it’s the body language and tone of voice that you pay attention to, not the words. It’s an important first step to establish familiarity with the people you’re talking to.

Then you’ve got to get to infatuation, where you think about the person you’re infatuated with all the time. You want to tell them things, but you want them to remember these things. You remember things when there’s emotion with the things you’re trying to remember. Every conceivable kind of emotion works. Disgust. Fear. Joy. Anger.

Centuries ago in a town in Europe, when they wanted an event to be remembered they made sure that a 7 year old boy watched the event and then they threw him into the river. And he couldn’t swim, and he struggled and struggled, and they pulled him out just before he drowned and he never forgot that day. Now that’s a disgusting story, but you’re not going to forget it!

So you put some emotion into your communication and you want to get past infatuation and into love. The stage of commitment is where two lovers listen to each other all the time. It’s actually possible in this stage to take the cues from the other person as you’re listening and know what they’re thinking and feeling, through empathy and theory of mind.

If communication is our greatest strength, this ability to connect with other people and communicate with them, why do we ignore that when we’re talking about what may be our greatest achievement, the most beautiful thing that’s ever come out of the human mind? Science.

We’re suffering from the curse of knowledge. How can knowledge be a curse?  It’s a curse if you understand something so deeply, in such complexity, that you forget what it’s like not to understand at that depth. All of a sudden you revert to the four year old mind when you think they know what you know.

When we talk about these complex things we understand, we don’t make this connection that the other person doesn’t understand.

[…Switch to describing what was happening on stage]

Alan showed someone the name of a really well known song (God Bless America) and got her to tap it out on the table. Before she started tapping, he asked her to guess how many people in the audience would recognise the song, and she thought it would be around 75%. But it turned out that only around 5% actually got it.

[…back to rough transcription]

When you’re tapping out a tune you can’t help but hear the melody in your own head. And you assume that everyone else can hear it too. That’s the curse of knowledge, when we’re just aware of what we know, not what they know.

How can you do this conversational approach if you don’t have this person standing right next to you pulling the details out and telling you they don’t understand? What happens if we teach scientists improvisation, so you get used to this contact with another person? We practice with an imaginary ball and by observing the way the other person handles the “ball” you know how heavy it is, what size it is, and you have this whole lot of communication going on. So we teach improvising and it’s remarkable how it transforms the people we are working with.

KEY POINTS: Know your audience. Use simple terms. Use analogies to help your audience understand.

We teach improv and then we teach distilling the message. When we taught distilling the message it didn’t go so well, because when they did improv they developed this sense of who they were distilling for.


There is a challenge called the Flame Challenge that lets people test their communication skills by explaining something to an 11 year old. It’s great practice for communicating to someone you’re not used to thinking about. This year the challenge is sound. Definitely worth checking out!

[end aside]

What is a story? Dramatic Action. When the hero wants something really important and there’s an obstacle in the way, and the hero has to get past this obstacle to get to this prize. That’s really the story of every scientific experiment.

[…Switch to describing what was happening on stage]

Alan got a volunteer to take a glass of water across the stage. Then he asked her to do it again, but this time he filled it to the top and said “Now do it again, but don’t spill a drop or your entire village will die.” Which trip across the stage was more engaging? We all know there’s no village that’s going to die, but just getting that in our imagination is enough to give us a sense of tension. It’s enough to invest us in the story. Something’s at stake, and it’s exciting.

[…back to rough transcription]

Every scientific experiment, every endeavour has that kind of story in it. The finding is contaminated. The funding dries up. Everyone has a story. It’s in there, you’ve just got to root around for it and find it.

This isn’t a formula. It’s a process of transformation. You can’t just give someone a few tips. You have to train them in improvisation. You’ve got to practice and try things. You’ve got to go through a process.

[Question time]

“How do you overcome those kinds of challenges when people have preconceived ideas and they don’t want to receive that information.”

There are studies showing that the more information you give people the more entrenched their ideas become. There’s a woman who is very successful talking about global warming and before she starts talking about global warming she establishes familiarity with the audience. She makes contact with them first, and then she takes them through her own journey step by step. It’s like vaccines, the opposition spreads not by information, it spreads by getting word through someone you’re familiar with. So you have to establish familiarity before you provide the information, and then you slide the information through on the relationship.

Even two people working together in an office can work better together if they get accustomed to making contact.

There’s a sophisticated kind of deep conversation that happens when you get habituated to tuning in to the other person. If one person has the job to communicate to the other person then we take it as the responsibility of the person talking to be clear. It’s not helpful to say “I told him what I had to say but he wasn’t listening,” we have to engage them. But we have to learn to listen as well.

You have to practice what you learn. You can’t just give them a course of 5 or 6 weeks and expect that to last a lifetime. So you need to keep practicing it and engaging with different audiences.

Your ideas don’t exist until they get into the other person’s head.





About lindamciver

Australian Freelance Writer, Teacher, & Computer Scientist
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