You’d Be a Better Communicator If You Weren’t So Afraid of Embarrassing Yourself

Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Scientists can be awful communicators, lapsing into jargon-filled lectures that leave laypeople behind. Alan Alda often learned this the hard way in his 11 seasons as host of Scientific American Frontiers on PBS. To fix this problem, Alda created a center at Stony Brook University that’s devoted to helping doctors and scientists learn to talk about complicated ideas, so that everyone can understand them. Now, he’s written a new book about the art and science of communication, filled with ideas about how everyone — not just scientists — can learn to express themselves better.

Last week, Tina Fey joined Alda onstage at the New-York Historical Society to talk about his new book — If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? — as part of a World Science Festival event. The actors — both with backgrounds in comedy and improvisational theater — spoke about how improv techniques can make you a better communicator by teaching you to think fast, trust yourself, and connect with your collaborators and your audience. In the course of the evening, a packed crowd of scientists and science enthusiasts cheered as the two actors played catch with an invisible beach ball, babbled in nonsense language, and enlisted a volunteer to carry a glass of water across the stage — each a lesson about fundamental aspects of good communication, like listening, relating, empathizing, and storytelling.

Here are some key takeaways from the evening, advice and techniques applicable for anyone who has to give a presentation at work, or just wants to connect with their dinner date.

Please don’t use buzzwords.

Alda said he had an epiphany about communication once while interviewing a scientist about her work. It started off well. “We had this connection between us and there was a nice intimate tone. She was speaking so I could understand her. It was just terrific.” But then, it shifted. “I think something she said reminded her that this was just like a lecture she gave, and slowly she turned away from me and looked right at the camera, and started giving it a lecture. She was in total lecture mode: Her vocabulary changes; the tone of her voice changes. I couldn’t understand her anymore.”

This scientist had fallen under “the curse of knowledge,” Alda said: She was simply too familiar with her subject. “It’s a curse when you know something so deeply that you forget what it’s like to be a beginner, and not know what it is to not understand it,” he said. When this happens, it’s easy to fall into arcane jargon, the shorthand that people use when they’re talking to colleagues. “Like covfefe,” Fey noted.

Curse-of-knowledge-induced jargon or buzzwords are easy to slip into, but they can alienate your audience and make them miss the point you’re making. Alda brought up a scientist, Brian Greene, co-founder of the festival, to demonstrate how people can learn to avoid buzzwords. Greene began explaining science concepts suggested by the audience, as Fey listened, sounding a buzzer whenever he said something she didn’t understand. Laying out the basics of string theory, Greene barely got through “the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics” before Fey buzzed in. Mentioning Schrödinger’s equation earned him another buzz, but eventually he managed to formulate a basic definition that Fey could understand and even summarize, to the crowd’s applause.

Just pay attention.

Your conversation partner probably won’t have a buzzer at hand to signal that you’re losing her. But if you’re watching her closely, she might not need one.

Alda told the story of a recent conversation, in which he suddenly realized he hadn’t really been listening to the woman he was talking to. He was committing a cardinal sin of bad communication: thinking about the next point he wanted to make when he should have been listening. Even worse, he realized, he hadn’t even really been looking at her. “I realized for the past three minutes where her face was I just saw a blob, like when they blot out the face of the innocent victim on television.”

So he started to really look at her, to see what her face actually looked like, what color her eyes were. “It’s amazing how you can suddenly get connected by just noticing the other person,” he said. “That’s what improv exercises are all based on, is observing the other person.”

To demonstrate, Alda and Fey began pretending to throw a ball back and forth across the stage. Each actor had to pay attention to how the other was handling the invisible ball, to see whether it was heavy or light, bouncy or not, to create a successful illusion together. After tossing around what seemed to be a medicine ball, then swapping it for a beach ball, Fey and Alda led the crowd in a group observation and response exercise: the wave.

“You’re improvising right now!” Fey shouted encouragingly as the wave rippled across the audience.

“You know, they could be on Broadway, these people,” Alda said.

Nonsense will clear things up.

Communication is more than just crafting a perfect sentence. In fact, it’s sometimes helpful to avoid words entirely, Alda said. His advice: Try gibberish. “You know what gibberish is, right? It sounds like a real language but it’s total nonsense. So many of us feel that communication is getting the message right and saying the exact right words and somehow that communicates what we want to communicate,” he said. “In fact, it’s everything. It’s the tone of voice. It’s the look on our face. It’s the body language we use.”

Alda and Fey acted out a three-minute improv scene — entirely in gibberish — with a secret prearranged premise, later revealed to be a nervous high school student asking his high school teacher to be his prom date. Using a nonsense language that — as Fey rightly pointed out afterward, sounded distinctly Russian — Alda and Fey protested, pleaded, and persuaded. They conveyed nervousness, irritation, hopefulness, exasperation, and resignation while uttering not a single intelligible word.

It’s easy to imagine how this kind of exercise could be helpful if you have to prepare for some kind of public speaking role, like a best-man speech. Avoiding words altogether forces you to step up your nonverbal communication game, to be more engaging and expressive with your face and body.

Conquer shyness through miserable failure.

During an audience Q&A at the end of the event, Alda and Fey fielded a question (from someone speaking confidently and presumably asking for a friend) about overcoming shyness and fear of public speaking.

Fey said she learned an important lesson years ago during a Second City improv set with her friend and fellow SNL alum Rachel Dratch. “It was going so badly. We were just bombing so hard. I remember looking deeply into Rachel’s eyes and she would clutch me with what we called her mouse paws, her tiny little hands — clutch me, and we were continuing the scene but there was whole other level of communication, like, ‘Dear God, we are bombing.’”

Fey said it was horrible, one of her greatest fears come to life. But what stuck with her was the post-performance realization: That was bad, but we got through it. “We were still alive and we would live to fight another day.”

Improv theater teaches you to abandon your fear of embarrassment, which not only makes you a better public speaker, but also allows you to be more assertive in everyday life, Fey said. Ask your doctor to repeat himself when he mumbles something about side effects. Ask the waiter to define a foreign word on the menu, so you don’t end up ordering octopus liver by mistake. Who cares if you feel dumb for a minute?

Alda said improv exercises can teach shy people to trust themselves, to trust that they’ll be able to contribute something when called upon to speak. “You get more used to the idea that something from your unconscious is going to come up and it’s going to be okay no matter what it is.”

And if you bomb? Don’t worry; life is long. “It’s going to be okay because in the long run, what difference does it make?” Alda said.

Be a Better Communicator by Embarrassing Yourself