When actor Alan Alda signed on to host the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers, in which he talked with scientists about their work, he did what most good interviewers would do. He read up on his subjects and their research, and he prepared a list of questions.
As Alda tells it, the first interviews were dull, dull, dull.
Then he tried a different approach. He did only cursory background reading, and he didn’t prepare a list of questions. Instead, he sat down to have a conversation instead of an interview.
In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, Alda describes what happened. The scientists, realizing they were talking with an interested layperson, started connecting on a personal level rather than delivering lectures. Alda, able to sense the scientists’ thoughts and feelings in the moment, let the conversation flow naturally and comfortably.
Instead of playing the role of a lecturer to a student, or an interviewee to a reporter, the scientists connected with Alda — and, by extension, with the PBS audience — as people talking with people.
Empathy: the key to communication
Alda’s book bears out a lot of things that technical writers already know. Empathy, he writes, is “the fundamental ingredient without which real communication can’t happen.”
Empathy comes from knowing your audience — whether it’s the person across from you in a coffee shop, an audience in a lecture hall, or a datacenter manager who reads your web page. Empathy comes from knowing who they are, what they’re thinking, and what they’re feeling.
Alda writes, “My guess is that even in writing, respecting the other person’s experiences gives us our best shot at being clear and vivid, and our best shot, if not at being loved, at least at being understood.”
He’s also right when he talks about connecting with an audience: “You make a connection by evoking emotions. A great way to evoke emotions is by telling stories. Stories are most effective when you establish commonality with the listener.”
Alda backs up his experience on Scientific American Frontiers with some impressive scholarship. He talks with an array of experts (it’s easy to get a meeting when you say, “Hi, I’m Alan Alda and I’d like to talk with you”). He reports on a number of research projects.
Some of the projects were Alda’s own handiwork. He was and continues to be a guiding force behind the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. His contributions to the science of interpersonal communication are such that STC (the Society for Technical Communication) recognized them by naming him an Honorary Fellow in 2014.
Inprov: new insights for technical writers
Still, despite all of his scholarship and all of his hard work, Alda’s conclusions come as no surprise to most technical writers. We already know about analyzing the audience, about connecting with readers, and about telling stories.
Where Alda adds real value for me is when brings his life’s work – acting – into the picture. Much of the book describes his experience with improvisation, in which actors create scenes together without a script and without any expectations as to the outcome.
For example, there’s the mirror exercise, in which two actors are paired and one of them simply has to mimic the other’s movements. Then, without pausing, they change places, and the first actor leads the other one. Then they change again and….nobody’s leading. The two actors are following each other through an unscripted set of movements, each one anticipating the next movement by keying off the other’s facial expressions and body language.
The point of the mirror exercise, in Alda’s words: “If I’m trying to explain something and you don’t follow me, it’s not simply your job to catch up. It’s my job to slow down. This is at the heart of communicating.”
Then there’s improvisational dialog. You say something to me, and it’s my job to build on it – to move the story along. In this exercise you never reject what the other person gives you. You accept it and add something new. You say “yes, and…”
You’re standing on a stage in an empty auditorium. There isn’t a drop of water in sight. Another actor says, “Look at all that water down there.”
You say, “Yes, and let’s dive into it.”
Alda used the “yes, and” approach when he interviewed his scientists. As a technical writer, you can use it when interviewing a subject-matter expert. Read their face. What are they comfortable talking about? Do you sense that they feel especially passionate about something, or that they want to tell a story? Listen to what they say, and respond with “yes, and…“
“The flurbgurb feature optimizes the flow of bits through the router.”
“Yes, and my datacenter manager will be excited about that because….” And then you let your SME pick up the story.
Science: it starts with “yes, and”
Alda observes that scientists work best when they drop their biases and take a “yes, and” approach to nature. Rather than “that can’t be,” they say “yes, I see that, and here’s what it might mean.”
We can take the same approach to getting information from SMEs and delivering it to our audiences. Rather than “that’s all there is to it,” let’s try saying “yes, and here’s what it means to my reader.”
When we do that, we’ll be communicating – better, perhaps, than we’ve ever communicated before.