In today’s episode, we’ll share some tips from actor and science communicator, Alan Alda, on how to express our thoughts and ideas so that everyone will understand us. We’ll also give some practical examples of how to use these tips in our work with farmers and other stakeholders.
Alan Alda is a famous actor and a passionate advocate for better communication, especially in science and medicine. He believes that communication is not just about transmitting information, but also about creating connection and understanding with other people. He says that communication based on empathy creates connection, and that connection is essential for building trust, collaboration and influence.
He’s written an excellent book called “If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?: My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating”. Aside from being a great read, and one we recommend, we also think the title is genius! One of the ways that Alda says we can connect with our audience is by using improvisation or improv, a technique that he learned from his experience in theatre and comedy. Improv is not about acting or being funny, but about being present, listening, and relating to others. Improv helps us to pay attention to what our audience is saying, feeling and thinking, and to respond in a way that shows that we care and understand.
Alda has developed a method of improv training that he calls the “Yes, and” system. The idea is that when we communicate with someone, we should always say “yes” to their point of view or perspective, and then add something to it. This way, we acknowledge their contribution, show respect for their opinion, and build on their idea. We don’t always have to agree with them, but we have to understand them.
For example, if a farmer says that they don’t want to use a new technology because they are afraid of the risks, we can say “Yes, I understand your concern, and I appreciate your caution. And I also want to share with you some evidence that shows how this technology can benefit you and your farm.” This way, we don’t dismiss or contradict the farmer’s fear, but we also don’t let it stop the conversation. We show empathy and curiosity, and we invite the farmer to explore the topic further with us.
Another way that he says we can connect with our audience is by using stories, anecdotes or metaphors that make our message more engaging, memorable and relatable. Stories are powerful tools for communication because they appeal to our emotions, imagination and curiosity. They help us to illustrate abstract or complex concepts with concrete or familiar examples. They also help us to create a bond with our audience by sharing something personal or meaningful.
As enablers of change, we often have to communicate complex or unfamiliar ideas to farmers and other stakeholders. We might have to explain new technologies, research findings, or best practices that can help them improve their productivity, sustainability and resilience. We might also need to share our opinions, feelings or feedback on various issues or challenges that affect them. But sometimes, we might find it hard to express our thoughts clearly and make ourselves understood by others. We might struggle to find the right words, organise our ideas, or adapt to different situations and audiences. We might also face barriers such as language, culture, or education that can hinder our communication. That’s why we need some guidance on how to communicate effectively and empathically. Communication is not just about transmitting information, but also about creating connection and understanding with other people. It’s a skill that we can learn and improve with practice and feedback.
So we have three ideas to consider to help improve our communication with our audiences. The first is to make no more than three points. One of the challenges of communication is to avoid overwhelming or confusing our audience with too much information. The human brain can only store so much information in short-term memory, and research suggests that it’s between three to five items at most. If we try to make more than three points in our message, we risk losing our audience’s attention and impacting how well they retain the information. These points should be clear, concise and relevant to our purpose and audience. We should also organise them in a logical order, such as from most to least important, from general to specific, or from problem to solution. For example, if we want to persuade farmers to adopt a new irrigation system for their crops, we can make three points: 1) how the irrigation system will reduce water use and wastage; 2) how it might increase crop yield and quality; and 3) how it could save money and time for them.
The second point is to explain difficult ideas in three different ways. It’s often challenging to explain complex or unfamiliar ideas in a way that our audience can understand and relate to. Sometimes, using technical terms or jargon can alienate or confuse our audience, especially if they don’t share our background or expertise. Sometimes, using only one explanation or example can limit our audience’s comprehension or interest. We can do this in a number of ways, including: 1) using analogies or metaphors that compare the idea to something familiar or concrete; 2) using stories or anecdotes that illustrate the idea with a narrative or a personal experience; and 3) using data or evidence that support the idea with facts or figures. For example, if we need to explain the concept of climate change to a group of farmers, we can use these three different ways: 1) use an analogy that compares climate change to a fever; 2) use a story that describes how climate change has affected a farmer’s livelihood in another region; and 3) use data that show how climate change impacts temperature, rainfall and crop growth in our area. This way, we make our message more relevant and interesting for the farmers, and we also show them that we care about their situation and their future.
The third and final point: make important points three times. When communicating, we need to make sure that our audience remembers and acts on our message. Sometimes, saying something once is not enough to make an impression or a difference. As often happens, our audience might forget or ignore what we said, or get distracted by other things. The three points we make could be: 1) at the beginning, where we introduce our topic and state what we’ll cover; 2) in the middle, where we develop our talk with explanations, examples and evidence; and 3) at the end, where we summarise our talk and call for action. For example, if we want to convince farmers to join a cooperative for marketing their products, we can say: 1) at the beginning, where we say that joining a co-op might help them access better markets and prices; 2) in the middle, where we show them some testimonials and statistics of successful co-ops; and 3) at the end, where we remind them that joining a co-op will increase their income and bargaining power.
Remember not to overwhelm our audience with too many calls to action. What’s the ideal number? In this case, it’s one! Keep it simple. And ask the audience to choose the one thing they plan to do as a result of your session.
We hope you found this episode useful and interesting. We’ve drawn heavily from the work of Alan Alda on how to express our thoughts so that everyone will understand us. We’ve mentioned his book already and he also hosts a podcast called “Clear and vivid with Alan Alda”, where he interviews guests from different fields and backgrounds on how they communicate and connect with others.
We hope you enjoyed this Enablers of change episode about communicating and connecting with our audience. We’ve shared our tips with you, but we’d love to hear yours too! How do you express your thoughts so that everyone will understand you? What tips or ideas do you have about this? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation!
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Until next time, take care and keep communicating!
Alda, A. (2018). If I understood you, would I have this look on my face?: My adventures in the art and science of relating and communicating. Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Clear and Vivid with Alan Alda: A podcast on communication and connection. Available online.