Jargon is Jibberish: Alan Alda’s 10 Commandments of Science Communication

alan alda science communication
Alan Alda. Photo courtesy of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

I’m going to take a break from science this week to talk about writing and communication because I was lucky enough to hear Alan Alda’s thoughts on science communication at UCSD. Alan Alda, of course, was Hawkeye in M*A*S*H, but has since written, directed and starred in many other productions. He also, more to the point of this post, has become a huge advocate for communicating science effectively.

Here’s what he had to say: 

1. Empathy is the key to communication.

2. Jargon is jibberish. You have to speak the same language as your audience. Even scientists don’t always speak the same language. You can’t collaborate if you can’t understand each other.

3. The public is on a blind date with science – make them fall in love with science. Alan has a theory that love has three stages: attraction, infatuation and commitment. You have to communicate well to attract people to your science and then make them commit. You want them to commit. You want them to love the work as much as you do.

4. Learn to speak confidently in front of an audience. You have two minutes to make a first impression. 80% of that impression is based on body language, tone of voice, speed of speech, not on the actual words or message.

5. Don’t suffer from the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is when you know something so well, you can’t remember not understanding it, so you can’t explain it properly

6. Use emotion to communicate science. We all remember things better if they have an emotional association so excite the audience’s emotion.

7. The audience wants a compelling story, they want to hear the obstacles and blind alleys behind the research results, not just the results.

8. If you work on communication, you can get better, no matter how good you are to begin with.

9. Science is one of the greatest achievements of human kind. Knowledge of science is one of the most beautiful things humans have to offer one another.

10. The ability to communicate is what makes us human and what allows technology to advance.

If you want a chance to practice what Alan preaches enter the Flame Challenge. In 300 words or a five minute video, explain to an 11 year old ‘What is Sleep’. Sounds fun. I’ll be posting my entry here after the competition closes. You are welcome to as well, just let me know in the comments below or email me at leahcanscience@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Jargon is Jibberish: Alan Alda’s 10 Commandments of Science Communication

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  1. 3 cheers for Alan Alda! Very much looking forward to reading your entry for the Challenge; the more I understand sleep, the more I hope to understand why it eludes me… ^_^ PS Thanks for your interest in my humble writing blog; I love science blogs and yours is excellent!

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