Alan Alda talks the art of communication at UNC-Greensboro

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Cocktail parties can be a challenge, if you’re a scientist, like Nadja Cech.

“If I introduce myself to someone and say, 'I'm a chemist,' that's often sort of a conversation stopper. People are like, 'Ooohhh.' They get that deer-in-the-headlight look,” said Cech, who runs a chemistry lab at UNC-Greensboro.

Although she is trained in science, she understands how important the art of communication is for that science to be fully effective.

“We want to be able to communicate that in a way that is accessible to people and actually affect change as a result of our science and have what we're doing be implemented instead of just be off in an ivory tower in a lab, working without having the results come to any application,” said Cech.

A guest she recently brought to campus couldn’t agree more.

“Better communication will make all the wheels turn more easily and every area of our lives,” said the man with the recognizable face.

You know that man as Hawkeye Pierce – the character Alan Alda made famous on the classic TV show, M*A*S*H.

Alda is much more than an actor. He recently won the American Chemical Society’s award for communicating their work to the public and has a book out about communication, cleverly titled, "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on my Face?"

Alda said the key to effective communication is empathy, which he says actors get very good at through their improvisational work.

“Empathy is not, is not the same as compassion,” Alda pointed out, “but if you can actually get a grasp of what the other person is going through you can see things more from their point-of-view and it's easier to talk to them. If I only talk to you from my point of view and I don't care what yours is, you're probably not going to listen.”

And Alda said all of acting has some element of improvisation in it.

“I love to see it happen for the first time,” he said. “People come backstage sometimes when I'm in a play and they say, 'How can you do the same thing, every night?' I don't do the same thing, every night. It's always a little different. The ball gets thrown to me by the other actor in a slightly different way and I catch it in a different way and throw it back in a different way. The same dialogue and we're standing in the same place. But the music is different. It would be like if someone said to you, 'Do you want to dance?' And you say, 'No, I've done that.'”

But just understanding those concepts, Alda says, is never enough.

“It sounds like a cliché, but pay attention to who you're talking to - who you're trying to communicate with, no matter who it is,” he said. “But you can't just do it by just deciding to do it. You really have to work on it, you have to practice it, make it a habit. Because, if you don't, you think you're talking to the person you're talking to but you're really talking to yourself. It's not just a slogan, it's an actual experience, a practice.”

See more of Alan Alda’s visit to UNCG in this edition of the Buckley Report.