Last June I met actor Alan Alda. Many people know him as Captain Hawkeye Pierce from the American television show M*A*S*H, which aired from the early 1970s through the early 1980s. Though I have never seen the show, I know the story takes place in South Korea during the Korean War. As a child, my grandfather – a Korean War veteran – watched the show in solitude as a means to relive and process his experiences.

Despite carrying this nostalgia, I met Alda for different reasons, while at Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science summer workshop. On opening day, in the university’s Wang Center, I watched as other workshop participants – university communicators, theatre artists, and scientists – ask if they could take pictures with him. Though he hadn’t become one of my heroes from popular culture, I was still enamored by his presence. (He was on TV, of course.) But it wasn’t just his cinematic history that drew me. He carried himself well, with his shoulders high and his eyes fixating on ours as he made his way around the room.

As the center’s main founder, Alda explained that his passion for sharing science grew when interviewing scientists on the PBS series “Scientific American Frontiers.” He found that during these interviews, many scientists got caught in the technical jargon of their disciplines and didn’t effectively connect with audiences, despite the show’s goal of sharing research with viewers. As a result, he devoted time and energy in promoting effective communication skills by incorporating performance techniques, like improvisation, and by encouraging participation from folks trained in communication and the arts – all of which became the backdrop for the center at Stony Brook.

I wanted to talk to him, and of course I wanted a photo, but I was intimidated. What could I say to engage Alan Alda, the man who spent time with my grandfather in ways I never could? While convincing myself to seize the moment, Alda had taken a seat by himself near the building’s first floor water fountain. A crowd hadn’t yet formed around him, so I went for it. Holding a drink tightly in one hand, I put out the other to introduce myself. After squeaking out my name, he returned the favor and the handshake. “I’m Alan,” he said.

He immediately put me at ease. I was mesmerized by his eye contact and how much he paid attention. If ever there was a time I felt really listened to, it was then.

Knowing I was there to bring ideas back to Fralin and Virginia Tech, I asked him the question that plagues me most often as a science communicator: how do we effectively communicate to a broad audience?

When communicating generally, we all think about who we’re speaking with, the audience, and the reason for communicating, the purpose. We also consider the message itself, how its crafted, and where we’re having the conversation. This manifests in common conversations we have everyday, from explaining to children why they must eat vegetables, to talking with doctors about medication. As a writer and communicator, though, I question how best to communicate complex scientific ideas, all the way down to word choice. For one reason, language carries in it culture. Many times language assumes its users have working knowledge of common cultural words and phrases, or slang. English, for example, is full of them. When something is common, we might refer to it as ‘a dime a dozen.’ When providing directions, we might say we have given someone ‘marching orders.’ Each of these phrases has meaning that doesn’t translate based on the meaning of the words alone. Instead, these phrases have meaning taken together as phrases from history – a dime a dozen comes from the mid 19th century when common foods like eggs and peaches were sold by the dozen for a dime; marching orders is used in military settings to direct troops.

So when I consider audience in writing, I evaluate the complexity of scientific jargon and the degree to which words and phrases require knowledge of American English and culture. Readers (and listeners) come from different places and experiences, even in the U.S., and many have differing linguistic backgrounds – even those with lots of English experience.

I tend to consider, then, words and phrases embedded in American English when communicating research that affects many outside of the U.S. Several Virginia Tech scientists work to reduce the spread of serious disease in other places like Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Sleeping sickness, for example, is a parasitic disease found most often in sub-Saharan Africa. This is not a common health threat in the U.S., but it’s still a significant problem for many people – with different cultures, backgrounds, experiences, and languages. Communicating the dangers and details of this disease is important for readers in the U.S., but doing so effectively is more complex when we consider who else might benefit from this information.

When we write about a new important discovery in disease, then, I question who might benefit from the knowledge. If those who are directly affected by the disease learn from the information we share, then they are better equipped to make informed decisions. They become an integral part of the audience and shape the message’s purpose and content.

After my question, his eyes still locked with mine, Alan’s smile bloomed. He shared a story about explaining the sunset to his grandson. He recounted each detail as he knew it, he explained, so his grandson would have a deeper appreciation and understanding. Later, when his brother asked him a question, his grandson, who had gotten a complicated earful, replied, “Don’t ask Grandpa.”

A month later, I heard Alan on NPR: “I think the most fundamental thing about communicating is reading the mind of the person you’re talking to, because you need to know where they are when you’re talking to them,” he told Diane Rehm.

What he means is that when communicating, we – doctors, research scientists, communicators – have to consider what audiences know and the information they need to understand science. When research is successfully shared, people can make informed decisions about health and well-being. We can’t just spew facts and expect others to know what we mean. So the most effective way to do this has to be based in communication itself – in dialogue, where people are talking with and learning from each other.

…And yes, if you’re wondering, it’s true: Alan’s smile is more infectious in person than on screen.


Learn more about science communication at Virginia Tech, including the course — Communicating Science — offered through the Graduate School:

Demand is rising for Virginia Tech’s Communicating Science course

Science graduate students learn how to explain their work to a general audience at Alan Alda workshop

Improv down to a science