Thursday, July 6, 2017

If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda [Book Review]

Next in my periodic series of book reviews is Alan Alda's newest book on science communicating, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, published in June 2017.

As a scientist and author concerned about how we communicate with the general public, I was eager to read this book by revered actor Alan Alda. The book reiterates and expands on a lecture I saw him give a few days ago. Between the two I learned a lot about improving communication. Alda mixes anecdotes and stories from his own experience, both as an actor (M*A*S*H, West Wing, movies, etc.) and his lifelong interest in science that led to him hosting Scientific American Frontiers for 11 years. Recently he helped establish the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where many of the techniques discussed in the book were developed and are currently used to teach communication skills to scientists.

The first of two parts includes eleven chapters and primarily focuses on laying the groundwork for communication. He emphasizes the importance of empathy and "theory of mind." The ten chapters in the second part delve more deeply into the scientific studies conducted to investigate the skill sets being taught.

Much of the training incorporates the concept of improvisation, or Improv. This is a technique often used by actors (and more famously by comedians) to entertain without a script. In this case, the technique is used to help scientists and others to learn how to "read" the person they are trying to communicate with. Games such as "the mirror exercise" help participants learn empathy, a mutual understanding of the person you're speaking to.

There is much more to the book than one might expect from an actor. Alda has taken his goal of helping scientists communicate seriously, proposing and participating in studies to determine the best methods for teaching others. He provides a strong scientific basis from the studies he describes and has worked with or interviewed professors and practitioners of these methods.

Based on my own experience (it's part of the reason I left a scientific consulting career to pursue writing and expanding public knowledge of science and history), the book is both scientifically robust and entertaining to read. While the focus is on helping scientists to better communicate, the lessons imparted will also be useful for all of us who wish to be better understood by - and to better understand - our fellow members of the public. Alan Alda should be commended for his contributions in this much needed area.