Write Like You’re Talking to Real People

Watch Alan Alda's talk, The Art of Science Communication
Watch Alan Alda’s talk, The Art of Science Communication

At the 10th anniversary celebration of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, Alan Alda, former host of the PBS series, “Scientific American Frontiers,” shares some advice on how scientists can communicate more effectively with the general public in his talk titled The Art of Science Communication.  As usual, architects can benefit from this advice as well.

Peppered with jokes and a few touching anecdotes, Alda’s talk highlights the importance of connecting with people while communicating.  He points out that humans were socializing for thousands of years before we ever started writing and moreover, the socializing area of our brain is much more developed than the part of the brain that controls written language.  The implications of this discrepancy are apparent when we hear scripted vs spontaneous speech. When we read and write, we tend to use an entirely different voice from the one we use when we simply talk with our friends and loved ones.  Our reading/writing voice is almost always cold, calculated, and formal while our speaking voice is warm, charismatic, and engaging.

In the talk, Alda shares the results of a workshop he directed with graduate science students involving improv comedy training. At the start of the workshop, each student was asked to speak for 2 minutes about their area of research.  After they spoke, they trained in improv comedy techniques for an hour and then they took another shot at describing their research.  After the improv training, the students were more charismatic, they spoke more comfortably, and they used more relatable metaphors.  Simply speaking, they were just better communicators.

Alda’s reasoning for this phenomenon is that improv requires a high degree of empathy.  During an improv scene, you have to become one with your partner; you must sense their emotions and predict their reactions.  Improv activates our innate ability to socialize.

So what can architects learn from this, especially with regards to writing? Well, after seeing how much better the students communicated once they were comfortable speaking spontaneously with real people as opposed to their usual scripted speech, I decided to give my mom a call.  I love talking to her, but we never talk architecture.  I figured if I can get her interested in learning about postmodernism, I can get anyone interested in learning about postmodernism.

I must have looked absolutely crazy, pacing around a courtyard in the dark of the night, talking excitedly about modernism, counter-cultures, the relationship between classical and romantic movements, and a panoply of other nerdy architecture things.  In the end though, what really got my mom interested was a comparison I made between postmodernism and punk rock.  Who knows if I would have arrived at that metaphor using my usual writing process, but the conversation really jumpstarted my ideas for a post titled, Postmodern is Punk.  You can read it and see for yourself if it’s any good.

In any case, Alda’s talk points out the importance of speaking with a relatable, human voice.  In the future, I’d love to try improv training and see if it improves my communication but for now, I’m happy calling my mom to chat about my weekly posts over on Place Exploration.  If you find yourself stuck on a presentation or speech, try talking to a friend about your topic and it’ll likely get your creative juices flowing.

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