Learning to Communicate Clearly—from Alan Alda

shutterstock_121137493Who would have thought that actor Alan Alda would have anything to say about unclear language, especially anything that we in PR and business communications might want to consider.

We all know that jargon is specialized language associated with a particular industry or group and that when used with our peers, it sounds meaningful. But how many of us notice the jargon we use routinely in our external communications? More important, how many know or care that more often than not, jargon creates a wall between us and our outside listeners and readers who can’t understand the words we use.

Alda knows. And he is concerned about the miscommunication that results when scientists use unclear language. He’s so concerned, in fact, that now as a visiting professor, he teaches a course at Stony Brook University’s newly named Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His goal is to help science students become better communicators, to teach them to speak clearly.

In his course, “He trains scientists to be more sensitive to their audience,” according to a recent Sunday Morning TV show, “so instead of speaking with what we might call gibberish (‘I study spatial planning and the valuation of ecosystem services to different stakeholders’), we get this: ‘I study ways oceans are used.’”

On Sunday Morning, Alda gives an example of clear communication that he claims saved his life when he was on a Chilean mountain top and would have died from a strangled intestine without proper treatment. The doctor, according to Alda, said “in the clearest possible way, ‘Something’s gone wrong with your intestine and we have to cut out the bad part and sew the two good ends together.’  I said, ‘That’s Great. Do it.’”

That’s the kind of direct, clear language Alda hopes to teach his students and the kind of language he would like to see other scientists adopt.

All of us in PR and corporate communications could learn from this approach, whether we’re giving a speech to shareholders, writing a white paper as a marketing piece, or tweeting about a new business product or service.

Photo: Shutterstock/Sam72

2 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea Alan Alda was involved in something like this (although 55,000 entries pop up in the Google search for “Alan Alda” and “science”).

    I’ve known since the ’70s that Hawkeye was cool, but I didn’t know his alter-ego was this cool!

    It is pleasing to hear Alda is neither a scientist nor a linguist himself, just someone with an interest in both subjects and a generous and inquiring nature.

    As a layman he is probably better positioned to know when a difficult concept is plainly explained than someone with a deeper knowledge of the topic.

    The plain language movement is spreading all over the world, decluttering the language in other highbrow fields such as government and law.

    Breaking down difficult information into easily digestible chunks is a wonderful act of generosity from academia to the common man.

    Everyone who works within Alan Alda’s Center for Communicating Science can know that they are doing a wonderful thing for humanity.

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