Connection and science communication

Two days at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science®

Have you ever had a conversation or delivered a presentation you wish you could revisit? Maybe you replay it in your head – the better version – when you actively listen and clarify your listener’s needs to increase your understanding, or even try to guess what they are feeling.

Relating is everything. It is key to listening, understanding, and connecting with our audiences, whether at work, home or in our wider world. And I don’t remember a time when clear science communication and connection with the audience have been more important than in the past year.   

Communication is contextual, different circumstances and audiences warrant different choices in communicating our message. Learning to listen to communicate the science, relate and connect to our audience are powerful tools, for us as individuals, and for public health more generally. 

The Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, New York, specialises in delivering workshops that help scientists learn new ways to communicate more effectively. I took part in one of their workshops earlier this year and it was like no other workshop I’ve attended. Based on methods and techniques from acting, especially improvisation, the approach is dynamic and highly interactive.

When I first heard the workshop consisted solely of improvisation exercises, my heart sank as I thought I would need to brush off my stand-up comedy routines. Thankfully, we were simply asked to bring our most authentic selves, to lean-in and trust the process while we were led through a range of activities that gradually transformed us, sharpening our skills in listening, connecting and understanding the needs of our audience.

The workshop’s participants were a diverse group including artificial intelligence designers from Google, hospital emergency department clinicians from Colorado, an applied mathematician from Massachusetts, and myself – a Communications Manager from Australia. For two days, we immersed ourselves in a series of improvisations, performing one activity after another, no preparation or notes allowed. Below are some tips and highlights – gems of information that I now use in all aspects of my life.   

1. Make your partner look good

Making your partner look good is a foundational rule of improvisation. The goal is to focus all your concentration on your partner, rather than yourself. Listen intently (both eyes and ears) and allow them to do the same for you. When we improvised, we were so busy focusing on our partner, we stopped worrying about presenting in front of an audience, our tone became friendlier, humour appeared and our nervousness dissipated. It also became a conversation rather than a formal presentation and enjoyable. A useful skill in real life for delivering presentations or having difficult conversations.

2. Find common ground

Do you have a rant buddy at work? That one person who understands where you are coming from? What draws you to them? Is it because you have similar core values? Or do you both have a challenging audience in common?

We often need to look beneath the surface to discover what our audience values in order to find common ground. For the following activity, I partnered with an emergency physician. For one minute, I listed all the words I identify with, we then switched roles and were surprised at how much we had in common.

Activity: I am a…

  • Step 1 – One minute
    Person A: I am a mother, aunt, coffee aficionado, paddle boarding, dog lover…
    Person B: Listens.
  • Step 2 – One minute
    Person A: Listens.
    Person B: I am…an uncle, brother, surfer, dog-lover…

Finding common ground is key especially when we need to communicate to those outside our field. We need to build a bridge between what they know and what we know. Our audience needs time, examples and analogy, and clear language to understand our message. Above all, they need to believe that we are authentic and connected to their wishes and interests.

3. See and be seen

Importantly, connection is not a checklist, but an active willingness to participate in the moment. Take the time to see others and let them see you. It takes time to sharpen our listening skills, to connect and understand the needs of your audience.

To connect to an audience in direct and personal ways, we need to be present, to listen intently and dynamically, with eyes and ears, paying attention to non-verbal cues, and to allow your audience to do the same for you. Be warned, the following mirroring activity makes it practically impossible not to open up and connect with your partner.

Mirroring activity: Partner-up with one other person, then designate one A, the other B.

  • Step 1
    Person A: Leads, slower movements, repeat movements
    Person B: Follows
  • Step 2
    Person A: Follows
    Person B: Leads
  • Step 3
    Both: Lead!

4. Make your message memorable through stories

Stories are the perfect strategy to help make our message memorable, especially for audiences unfamiliar with the content. Stories create empathy, and emotion is a fundamental means of gaining and retaining knowledge.

 “If we’re looking for a way to bring emotion to someone, a story is the perfect vehicle. We can’t resist stories. We crave them,” says Alan Alda.

Stories are easier than facts to process and remember. Using evocative and vivid language, repetition, association, visuals, surprise and humour can all bring information to life, and make it more memorable.

Storytelling can become an important tool for scientists and public health researchers to mobilise. In the current climate of disinformation, stories are especially important to challenge those used to discredit science.

Subscribe to the Clear+Vivid podcast for more tips on science communication.