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9 Useful tips from an Alan Alda Science Communication Workshop


Maybe you have experienced this. You know your research so well, but upon describing it to a new audience, the elegance of communication is overpowered by long-winded jargon-rich sentences.  What is missing in these situations is a set of tools for communicating science; lessons that are not necessarily directly addressed in course work.

Alan Alda has a knack for getting scientists to explain their research in creative, easy-to-relate-to ways.  His approach to successfully getting scientists to communicate their work in a way that he can understand is part of the inspiration behind the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

At the start of this year, I participated in a 1-day Alan Alda Communication Workshop.  The workshop focused on successful communication in which the audience is left understanding the main points of what you said.  It covered strategies for optimizing physical presence and resetting after mistakes, to connecting your audience with the science and communicating 1-minute of content in just 15-seconds.  The workshop embraced improvisation and forging on with a ‘yes and’ mentality.

The day was broken into three themed sections: See and Be Seen, Designing a Vivid Message, and Just-a-Minute (JAM) Sessions.  The first two sections consisted of short and simple exercises. Each exercise demonstrated the effectiveness of a different communication tool and gave each partner-pair the opportunities to try it out.  The third section was dedicated to getting comfortable using the tools we were taught in the See or Be Seen and Designing a Vivid Message sections, while simultaneously crafting our message based on feedback from the other workshop participants.

The remainder of this post is dedicated to sharing 9 useful lessons I learned from the exercises at the Alan Alda Communication Workshop. As a person new to improve but familiar with presenting, I have found that the tools I learned from the workshop have been easy to implement during presentations because they are both simple and practical.  Going through these exercises has had the added benefit of increasing my confidence in all of my communications. I hope that you find them as effective as I have.

See or be Seen:

1) Lesson: A small adjustment in stance changes a person’s ability to be noticed.
Try it: Walk around trying to be unnoticed. Then try to be noticed. As you transition between the two, notice how your body adjusts.
Use it: When you present, stand in a posture similar to how you stood to be noticed so that you draw your audience into your presentation.

2) Lesson: Words, even names, are not necessarily going to be meaningful without context.
Try it: In a group of people, go around the circle and have everyone say a word (in the workshop, we did this to learn names because it was a group of new faces). Then go around the circle again and have everyone say their word and a passion they have. In the third round, have everyone say their word while representing their passion with hand gesture (for example, I am passionate about noodle shapes, so I made a little air spiral with my finger).  In the final time around the circle, the participants should take turns saying someone else’s word while gesturing that person’s passion.    It took about 10-15 minutes to learn a group of 17 news names.
Use it: For an important point or word in your presentation, help your audience remember it by associating it with an action or motion.

3) Lesson: If you get tripped up, accept it and move on.
Try it: With a partner, try counting to three (you say ‘1’, they say ‘2’, you say ‘3’, they say ‘1’, and so on). In the first round, try it vocally.  In the second round, replace saying ‘1’ with a clap while keeping ‘2’ and ‘3’ vocal.  In the final round, keep ‘1’ as a clap, replace ‘2’ with a stomp, and keep ‘3’ vocal.  When you and your partner screw up, throw your hands up in the air and exclaim ‘Tada!’. Then start again.   By acknowledging the mistake, you are able to quickly reset your focus.
Use it: When you fumble your words in a presentation, acknowledge it to yourself, and forge on.

4) Lesson: Make your audience look good by moving at a pace that allows them to follow along with you.
Try it: Face a partner and start mirroring each other’s actions. Start with one of you as the leader and the other as the follower, then switch roles. After a bit, have both partners take on the role of leader, then try both taking on the role of follower.  You will find that in order for the follower to be a convincing mirror, the leader must make slow and clear motions.  In other words, the follower depends on the leader to make them look good.
Use it: When presenting to a new audience, deliver your message so that they can follow along with you without feeling steam rolled by rapidly incoming information.

Designing a Vivid Message:

5) Lesson: Know the goal of your communication.
Try it: Answer these questions for yourself:

1) Who is the audience?
2) What is your end goal?  What are you trying to make them think, feel, or do?  For instance, are you trying to get them to ask a question, or get them to tell someone else, or get them to do their own project?
3)  Why would the audience care? Perhaps it impacts their finances or their health, or maybe they just find it interesting.
4) How will you achieve your goal and what obstacles stand in the way? Make a plan to overcome those obstacles.

Use it: When you are faced with an opportunity to communicate your science, identify what you most want to result from the interaction, and make a plan to get there.

6) Lesson: Relay your message in terms of the audience’s interests.
Try it: With a group of people make an inner and outer circle, each with the same number of people. Have the inner and outer circles face each other. For each pair facing one another, have the outer circle person share a hobby of theirs in a single word.  Then, the inner circle partner has 1-minute to describe their work with an analogy related to the outer partners hobby.  Do a couple of rounds, but rotate one circle so that the partner-pairs change.
Use it: During one-on-one or small group interactions, make your message easy for your audience to relate to by identifying one of their interests, and then crafting your message so it includes an analogy that is memorable for them.

7) Lesson: Being unaware of jargon and assuming the audience’s background are easy mistakes to make.
Try it: Find a partner and pretend one of you is a time-traveler from the past and the other is a person in the present.  Have the person in the present describe to the time-traveler what a Blog is.  Then switch roles and have the person in the present describe what a TV is.  You may find that the time-traveler is limited on what seems to you like obvious background information and does not understand language specific to the given topics.
Use it: Try to remember being new to your science and how overwhelming it can be. Design your presentation so that your audience never gets overwhelmed with anything by excitement for the topic.

8) Lesson: Only 15 seconds is required to relay what you do and why it matters.
Try it: Find a partner and present you science to them in 1-minute.  Then do it again in 30-seconds. After the 1-minute and 30-second rounds, have your partner give you feedback.  In the third round, present your science in 15- seconds. In the fourth round, take a full-minute to describe it.  In the final round, have your partner explain your science back to you using a full minute.  By cutting down the time in the first 3 rounds, you are forced to identify the most important part of what you are trying to communicate.  When you get the full-minute back, you are prepared with a clear and focused message for your audience to take away.  In the final round you are able to assess the effectiveness of your communication, if you did not hear the main points of your message in your partner’s description, then you know you need to modify your strategy.
Use it: Identify the most important points of your presentation and narrow it down to a concise delivery.

Just-A-Minute (JAM) sessions:

9) Lesson: Practice, get feedback, and practice some more.
Try it: In a group, take turns presenting your work in 1-minute sessions.  After each person presents, have the group provide feedback to improve the presentation and clarify the message.   Do a second round of presentations and feedback.
Use it: Find a test audience before a presentation to help optimize your presentation.

Remember to relax and have fun with these exercises.  Good luck!


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