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Alan Alda to Scientists: “Tell Me a Story”

Alan Alda at AAAS

(A. Kotok/Flickr)

16 February 2014. Alan Alda told scientists and colleagues that researchers need to change the way they communicate with non-scientists, to emphasize the stories behind their work, and in personal terms. The award-winning actor, writer, and director gave these words of advice at yesterday’s plenary session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.

Alda came to the meeting with many more science communications credentials than most Hollywood personalities. He’s a visiting professor of journalism at Stony Brook University in New York, where he established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. In addition, Alda hosted the series Scientific American Frontiers on PBS for 13 years and wrote a play about the life of Marie Curie.

Too often, said Alda, scientists fail to connect with their audiences — including people funding their research — when telling about their studies. He urged scientists to put their research ideas into story form. He noted the mantra of Don Hewitt, the television news producer who created the 60 Minutes series on CBS: “Tell me a story.” 60 Minutes, said Alda, is the most successful news show on television because it tells compelling stories.

The failure of many scientists to connect with their audiences, said Alda, begins with their body language. Many talks by scientists are given behind lecterns, which act as a psychological barrier between scientists and the people they’re trying to reach. (Alda walked around on the AAAS stage with a wireless microphone.) And too often scientists also fail to create eye contact with people sitting a short distance away.

Alda said the stories scientists need to tell should have more than a beginning, middle, and end. Stories have drama. At Stony Brook, said Alda, they use techniques learned from improvisational comedy or Improv, where stand-up comedians create whole stories from a few clues, to teach students how to create stories with drama. The stories, like Improv,  should reach into scientists’ personal experiences to illustrate complex and abstract concepts.

Alda’s center at Stony Brook holds an annual contest for scientsts to explain ordinary scientific phenomena to 11 year-olds, called the Flame Challenge; in the first of contest, contestants had to describe a flame. This year’s challenge is “What is color?”. The deadline for submissions is 1 March 2014.

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