I know, I know – some of you are going to think how’s the M*A*S*H star going to help me be a better communicator? Well, for those of you who don’t know, Alan Alda has a long history in communication. He was the host of PBS’ American Scientific Frontiers and went on to help found the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Mr. Alda is an extremely knowledgeable communicator and his book is a great read for those of us in the field.
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? is a charming and fun read. It is full of great reminders and new ways of looking at communication based on Mr. Alda’s impressive career working both as an actor and a communicator. For me, there were three big takeaways, all revolving around a core concept: communication is really about listening.
1. Communication is about listening and learning.
Professional communicators spend a lot of time on key messages and talking points. Yes, it’s important for us to clearly and concisely get our message across. But it’s just as important, if not more important, to hear what our audience has to say. The first chapter of Mr. Alda book is about relating. I’m sure that was no accident. Mr. Alda writes about responsive and contagious listening and being willing to be changed by listening. This concept really struck me. In health communication, we talk about participatory communication – making sure our audience has a voice. But someone having a voice isn’t the same as being heard.
Takeaway 1: Treat your participatory communication as a listening exercise. We need to start thinking about participatory communication both making sure our audience has a chance to speak up, and making sure we listen. And perhaps more importantly, that we are willing to be influenced by what we hear.
2. A great communicator needs IQ and EQ.
An empathetic listener understands the experiences of her audience. Often times, particularly when communicating about science, we stick solely to the facts. Unfortunately, we often do it a way that, while accurate, is totally uninteresting and unclear to our audiences. It’s no wonder we are having a “facts backlash” today. People don’t understand what we’re saying and may feel like language is being used to divide the “more learned” from the “less learned”.
Communication should be a bridge, not a divider. Mr. Alda writes about understanding the person you are speaking with, including emotionally. We should understand how a person feels about an issue and why does it matters (or not) to them.
Takeaway 2: Don’t be afraid to inject emotion into communication. Most people understand and make their decisions about how they feel, not about the facts presented. While facts are very important, what those facts mean to someone is far more important.
3. Communication is about more than words.
Mr. Alda spends time in the book on improvisation acting techniques. Improv is sort of a brilliant way of thinking about communication. It’s brilliant because communication is so much more than words. Communication is also about body language, inflection, facial expressions. Improv uses these cues to help the actor understand the “scene”. This way, an actor can do more than just react – he can be a part of the scene. As communicators, we should be doing the same, working to be a part of a conversation rather than talking at each other.
Takeaway 3: Make sure you communicate with all your senses. We need to be aware and present when communicating. By listening with our eyes and not just our ears we will hear much more.
This year has been tough, and communication has been turned upside down with alternative facts, fake news and the like. This is a great book to end the year on – its entertaining, but also a great reminder of the importance of what we do, why it matters to do it well, and how to do it better.
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