In need of someone to perform surgery in a combat zone, you probably wouldn’t choose Alan Alda, no matter how many times you’ve seen him do it on television. This sounds obvious to those of us who believe that actors don’t know how to do anything at all. But a performer like Alda doesn’t become a cultural icon by accident: his particular skill set has enabled him not just to communicate with millions at a time through film and television, but also to navigate his offscreen and personal life with a certain adeptness. In the Big Think video above, he reveals three of his own long-relied-upon strategies to “express your thoughts so that everyone will understand you.”
“I don’t really like tips,” Alda declares. Standard public-speaking advice holds that you should “vary the pace of your speech, vary the volume,” for example, but while sound in themselves, those strategies executed mechanically get to be “kind of boring.” Rather than operating according to a fixed playbook, as Alda sees it, your variations in pace and volume — or your gestures, movements around the stage, and everything else — should occur organically, as a product of “how you’re talking and relating” to your audience. A skilled speaker doesn’t follow rules per se, but gauges and responds dynamically to the listener’s understanding even as he speaks.
But if pressed, Alda can provide three tips “that I do kind of follow.” These he calls “the three rules of three”: first, “I try only to say three important things when I talk to people”; second, “If I have a difficult thing to understand, if there’s something I think is not going to be easy to get, I try to say it in three different ways”; third, ” I try to say it three times through the talk.” He gets deeper into his personal theories of communication in the second video below, beginning with a slightly contrarian defense of jargon: “When people in the same profession have a word that stands for five pages of written knowledge, why say five pages of stuff when you can say one word?” The trouble comes when words get so specialized that they hinder communication between people of different professions.
At its worst, jargon becomes a tool of dominance: “I’m smart; I talk like this,” its users imply, “You can’t really talk like this, so you’re not as smart as me.” But when we actively simplify our language to communicate to the broadest possible audience, we can discover “what are the concepts that really matter” beneath the jargon. All the better if we can tell a dramatic story to illustrate our point, as Alda does at the end of the video. It involves a medical student conveying a patient’s diagnosis more effectively than his supervisor, all thanks to his experience with the kind of “mirroring” exercises familiar to every student of acting. A doctor who can communicate is always preferable to one who can’t; even a real-life Hawkeye, after all, needs to make himself understood once in a while.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.