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Alan Alda Wants Us To Have Better Conversations

Alan Alda
Alan Alda

Fighting miscommunication might seem an ironic choice for an actor whose comedy career was built on all the funny consequences of people misunderstanding each other.

But Alan Alda has made it his mission to help scientists — and the rest of us — communicate better.

It all started when he was hosting the PBS interview program Scientific American Frontiers.He pushed himself, and the scientists he interviewed, to have conversations — to really listen to each other, to connect with each other, and to try to understand one another's perspective.

Alda has had lots of practice with this kind of active listening — it's required for acting, and doing improvisational theater.

"I don't say my next line in a play because it's written in the script and I've memorized it," Alda says. "I say it because you do something — you the other actor — do something or say something that makes me say this next line, and makes me say it in a certain way."

Alda realized that the lessons he knew from improv might help scientists communicate better — and this led him to start the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Alda writes about what he's learned from all of these experiences in his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.

This episode of Hidden Brain was taped before a live audience at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Parth Shah, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.