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. 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 chat with you about your work.”) 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) named 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. Continue reading →