Books, Professional Development

Book 507: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? – Alan Alda

Only two ARC/Galleys left and I am all caught up! The same publicist who sent me Finally Out reached out about this book and the title had enough humor in it I figured it was worth a shot.* I enjoyed this so much more than I thought I would!

What Alan Alda—I didn’t even recognize him from M*A*S*H (IMDb link), I just recognized his caricature—is doing is what the Plain English Campaign (website) has been trying to do since the late 70s, just through a different venue: improv. Both are trying to get things translated from the indecipherable jargon of science or government into easily relatable language. Alda, has basically made a side career out of this with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where the observations he made from his many years on Scientific American Frontiers are put into practice to teach scientists how to talk to non-scientists.

I found the book to be incredibly well written and Alda had a way with storytelling that really brought all of his points home and his enthusiasm for science and learning in general is contagious. He used examples from research scientists to graduate assistants, from doctors to individuals running a summer camp for teens with autism. It really hit home toward the end of the book what he was trying to do. He’s walking through the garden with his wife who is naming flowers.

“‘Look at that gorgeous hydrofloxia,’ I say, and immediately I feel a surge of pleasure at having inside knowledge. Arlene is not impressed. She knows I’m making it up.

For one brief moment, I had enjoyed speaking the private language of botany. It didn’t bother me that the word doesn’t exist. We both knew I was joking, but I got to use a fancy word and I loved it. There’s something appealing about a private language. It can be intoxicating. Jargon is like that, and the more rarefied it is—the fewer people who understand it besides you—the more it resembles the common hydrofloxia. IT has a seductive aroma. You can get drunk on it.” (Chapter 20)

THIS is what he is trying to help alleviate in the scientific field and what he highlights others are doing in other fields.

Alda walks us through many of the Improv exercises he used to relax individuals and to get them in the mindset of thinking about the listener and not themselves or their work. The exercises are as simple as tossing an imaginary ball to as complex as having to explain something jargon-y while at the same time getting across your relationship (think little brother or ex-boyfriend) without saying what the relationship is.

What I wish there was more of, was Part II: Getting Better at Reading Others.Even though the book is roughly evenly weighted between the two parts, the second one felt a little weaker. I’m not sure if I was looking for more practical advice (which he provides a good amount) or if I just wanted more stories about how he’d applied a lot of what he worked on.

Recommendation: This is one of those books that should be required reading in school. It could be required for everyone as there is a lot to learn, especially about emotional intelligence, but really it should be required for those who have super specific language but still interface with the public (accountants, lawyers and doctors just to name a few). It’s a quick read and I felt like I got a lot out of it. Depending on the subject, I would probably read another book by Alda.

*I received a copy of this book from a publicist in return for my honest opinion, no additional goods or money were exchanged.

Opening Line: “A couple of decades ago, a letter came in the mail that set me on a path that would not only bring me to a deeper understanding of that day with the dentist, but would actually change the direction of my life.”

Closing Line: “He said, ‘I’M NOT MAKIN’ THAT MISTAKE AGAIN.'” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

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8 thoughts on “Book 507: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? – Alan Alda”

  1. Awesome review! I have a copy of this on my shelf! I got to see him at his 92Y event in NYC this June, and he is an incredibly well-spoken guy! It doesn’t surprise me that his writing is awesome! He had a great back and forth with Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad to hear he was so great in person! Reading this definitely made me want to go and watch his old PBS series. His writing and the way he described it made me feel like it would be a great thing to watch.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having worked with scientists and engineers for 18 years trying to help them better communicate I applaud Alda’s efforts. My exercise was what I called the Auntie Mary test – if could they explain something in a way she would understand

    Liked by 1 person

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