Alan Alda: 3 Ways to Express Your Thoughts So That Everyone Will Understand You

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Alda Uses Improv to Teach Sci­en­tists How to Com­mu­ni­cate Their Ideas

What Is a Flame?: The First Prize-Win­ner at Alan Alda’s Sci­ence Video Com­pe­ti­tion

How to Speak: Watch the Lec­ture on Effec­tive Com­mu­ni­ca­tion That Became an MIT Tra­di­tion for Over 40 Years

Charles & Ray Eames’ A Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Primer Explains the Key to Clear Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in the Mod­ern Age (1953)

Erich Fromm’s Six Rules of Lis­ten­ing: Learn the Keys to Under­stand­ing Oth­er Peo­ple from the Famed Psy­chol­o­gist

How to Get Over the Anx­i­ety of Pub­lic Speak­ing?: Watch the Stan­ford Video, “Think Fast, Talk Smart,” Viewed Already 15 Mil­lion Times

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.

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  • K says:

    I believe every­thing Mr. Alda said, but I don’t think that was the biggest rea­son MASH was such a hit. It gave the audi­ence a chance to be sym­pa­thet­ic, and Empa­thet­ic at no per­son­al emo­tion­al risk, and that has a cleans­ing effect on our psy­che. When the pro­gram is over we feel more Human.
    All in all its pure genius whether on pur­pose or by acci­dent.

  • ROBERTO says:

    Coin­ci­do con K.

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