Crowd control is not usually an issue at scientific meetings. But actor Alan Alda’s plenary talk at the an Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting earlier this month was an exception. Ten minutes before the scheduled start time, the ballroom was well beyond capacity and sentries began turning away hordes of disappointed scientists. I slipped inside just as the doors were closing and got one of the last seats on the floor.
In his talk, Alda explained how scientists can “get beyond a blind date” with the public, transforming jargon-laden, impersonal explanations of their work into engaging stories told in plain yet accurate language. He created the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University to give scientists hands-on training in how to communicate more effectively with the public. Alda showed us video clips of one technique that he uses to help scientists connect more strongly with their audience: improvisational theatre. After undergoing the improv training, which teaches students to be more aware of their own bodies and of the people around them, the scientists’ were much better at explaining their work in vivid and more relatable ways.