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19th February 2020
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A MASH of communications

Posted 27/02/2014 by sevans

As chief surgeon in hit US TV series M*A*S*H, actor Alan Alda had to learn a lot about science and medicine in order to deliver a convincing performance. Many of the scenes were created after complex and often brain-draining discussions with real surgeons, Alda told delegates at the AAAs meeting in Chicago in February 2014. Years later, he recalled how he surprised medics by saying he himself needed a surgical procedure known as ‘end to end estenosis’ – a procedure he had regularly carried out on film.

Today, Alda is putting some of those lessons to use at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in the US, where he is dispensing some of his top tips about how scientists should better communicate with the lay public about their work. The first thing to remember, Alda said, is that good communication is a bit like ‘a blind date between two strangers’, moving from attraction through infatuation to commitment. For effective communication to happen, he advises scientists need to ‘forget the podium’ and engage face to face with their audience.

They also need to talk slowly, start at the very beginning and never assume too much knowledge, and perhaps most critically of all, to tell a good story in order to grab the imagination and catch interest. A point that Alda demonstrated by asking a woman to move a full glass of water from one side of the stage to the other and place it on a bench; when the same task was performed with the caution that if she spilled a drop on the way her entire village would die, the audience suddenly became much more alert.

Scientists, Alda said, often suffer not only from a lack of emotion or detachment when talking about their work, but also from the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ that can make it difficult for people to understand their train of thought. The trick, he says, is: ‘Don’t say everything you know, just enough to get your audience interested.’ 

Three years ago, Alda started an international contest called The Flame Challenge that asks scientists to communicate complex science in ways that would interest and enlighten an 11-year-old. The winner of the first question ‘What is flame?’ was a physicist, for a short film and song – judged as the best of hundreds of entries by a panel of 11-year-olds, while last year’s winner for the best explanation to ‘What is time?’ was won by a chemist.

This year, the question that scientists are being asked to address is: ‘What is colour?’  Anyone interested in entering should click here. But hurry - scientists have until 1 March 2014 to submit their answers in writing, video or graphics. And good luck!

Cath O’Driscoll - Deputy editor

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