Have you ever struggled with getting a basic point across to a friend or colleague? Communication isn’t simple, especially when you’re trying to express complex ideas.

Alan Alda, the actor, New York Times best-selling author and longtime host of of PBS’ “Scientific American Frontiers” has spent hours trying to bridge the communications gap with scientists, physicists, neuroscientists and academics.

Now he’s out with a new book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?” where he details his adventures at sharing big ideas effectively with the general public.


  • Alan Alda Seven-time Emmy award-winning actor; author of "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Communicating"; previous host of the PBS science program, "Scientific American Frontiers"; visiting professor at Stony Brook University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Read An Excerpt Of Alda's Book

My Life As a Lab Rat

Testing an Empathy Exercise

I have a habit of experimenting on myself.

In my twenties, I was fascinated by the notion that a person’s temperature goes up and down during the day. So, to test the idea, for several months I carried a thermometer in my pocket and took my temperature every hour. No matter where I was. Understandably, I appeared a little weird to the people I had meetings with while I had this thing sticking out of my mouth.

I got caught up in the same kind of mania when I started looking for ways to practice mind reading on my own. I wanted to see if I could improve on my abilities at empathy and Theory of Mind and I was searching for a kind of personal human-contact workout gym.

I started by practicing reading the faces of strangers – people in the street, store clerks, taxi drivers – trying to get inside their heads and figure out why they were saying what they said, the meaning of their body language and tone of voice.

I practiced listening to people; asking their opinion about things. Even in casual encounters, I tried to see things through their eyes.

I did it everywhere I went. It was a little less obvious than walking around with a thermometer in my mouth, but no less obsessive. Surprisingly, it seemed to be having an effect on me. Maybe it was causing a change in the tone of my own voice or the look on my face. Something seemed to be changing, because the behavior of other people was becoming different.

One day, I hailed a taxi at Columbus Circle. The cab pulled up and the driver rolled down the passenger window and called out to me, “Where are you going?” When drivers ask you this before you get in the cab, it means they won’t take the fare unless they like where you’re going. This is against the law. I drove a cab for a while in my twenties and I know how annoying it can be to have to drive to far flung places – I once had to dig my cab out of a snow bank in the Bronx at two in the morning –but I went where the passengers wanted to go, because I knew I had to. When I get asked this question now, my usual response is not to identify compassionately with the driver, but to stoke the fire under my boiling blood. I went, pal, and so can you! is roughly my thought and I walk away without negotiating.

But this time, I looked him in the eye. I saw no hostility. It’s the end of his shift, I thought. He wants to get home. Suddenly, I was all empathized up. I gave him the address, and he let me get in the car. I was surprised I didn’t feel my usual resentment at having to audition for a cab ride, but then he said: “What’s the cross street?” This was another flash point. I’ve never been there before, I thought. How am I supposed to know the cross street!? Isn’t that sort of your job? Ordinarily, I would start boiling again. Instead, I took out my iPhone and opened a map. “I’m looking it up for you,” I said. We were getting to be real team mates.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m trying to get to a bathroom. I needed to go for the last half hour.”

“So, look,” I said, “Just drop me at 86th and Broadway. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

“No. No,” he said. “You’re a kind person. People get in this cab, they don’t care about other people. I’m taking you where you’re going.”

“No, look,” I say, “It’s all right. It’s only a couple of blocks.”

Now, we were in an ecstasy of cooperation.

“Don’t make the turn here,” I say, “you’ll have to go four blocks out of your way. You’ll waste five minutes.”

“NO! You’re a nice person. I’m taking you to the door.”

I couldn’t stop him. This man was sacrificing his bladder for me. I wished I’d never started the whole thing.

I stopped practicing empathy for a while; it was exhausting. But I couldn’t stay away for long. I started in again, with a slight shift. I began to look at people’s faces not only to guess what they were feeling, but to

actually name it. I would mentally attach a word to what I thought was their emotion. Labeling it meant that I wasn’t just observing them; I was making a conscious effort to settle on the exact word that described what I saw. This had an interesting effect on me. First, I felt I was listening more intently to what they were saying, even if earlier I had found them somewhat boring. And secondly, I would feel a sense of comfort, almost a sense of peace, come over me. It seemed a little bizarre, but so far it wasn’t causing people to sacrifice their organs for me.

The feeling of peace was probably just a sense of relaxation. Whatever it was, naming other people’s emotions seemed to help me focus on them more and it made talking to them more pleasant. I had no idea, of course, if other people who tried this would have the same experience, or if it was true that I was building up some empathy. Someone would have to do a study on it to find out. But I didn’t expect anyone to devote research time to studying such a cockeyed idea. On the other hand…

Excerpted from IF I UNDERSTOOD YOU, WOULD I HAVE THIS LOOK ON MY FACE? by Alan Alda. Copyright © 2017 by Alan Alda. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Interview Highlights

In Alan Alda’s new book, “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Communicating,” he writes about the importance of clear communication. The 7-time Emmy award winner explains that many people — including a number of our country’s scientists — are terrible at communication. In the book, Alda argues that they could improve their skills with, of all things, improv comedy classes, which teach people to observe, and therefore to better communicate.

These communication skills are especially important in today’s highly polarized times. Alda says people are sometimes afraid to voice their true opinions and are unable to understand perspectives beyond their own. “I know people who shush their friends about talking at the dinner table because they know somebody at the other end of the table is violently opposed to their point of view,” Alda says. 

So how do people become better communicators? According to Alda, it’s by focusing on the reactions and perceptions of the people around them.

He gives this example of a basic improvisation exercise that he uses when training scientists:

One of the early exercises we do in improv is a mirroring game where you and I are facing each other and you’re my mirror, and everything I do is mirrored by you. Every motion I make is mirrored by you, exactly at the same moment that I do it, just as if you were a mirror with no time lag. So this requires a tremendous amount of coordination between the two of us and great observation of one another. And I really have to take care of you. If you’re not following me as my mirror, it’s my obligation to make sure you follow me. And this is a perfect image for communication because if I’m trying to communicate something to you and you don’t follow me, it’s not your problem. It’s my problem—I have to make sure that you follow what I’m saying, and the way I do that is by observing you. 

This focus on observing your audience doesn’t just stop at face-to-face communication. Alda says this also works in writing:

If you’re thinking about how it’s going to land on the reader and you have a general idea of who the reader is going to be, you can actually predict or make a good estimate of what the reader is going through when you put down the first sentence. And you can pretty much guess what they’re ready for in the next sentence.

The reason many people fail to communicate, Alda says, is fear:

To me, it’s equivalent to stage fright. It’s the fear of being judged, being out on stage…The kind of counterintuitive fact seems to be that that fear goes away—for instance, the fear of stage fright goes away during an improvisation—because you’re connected to the other person and your mind is on them and it’s not on yourself. And getting your mind off yourself and onto the other person just washes away fear because you’re engaged in something other than worrying about how you’re doing. 

When it comes to scientists trying to explain complex ideas, Alda says there can be a “curse of knowledge”:

It’s a curse when you know something so deeply and in such complexity that you forget what it’s like not to understand it that deeply, to be a beginner at it. And we have to constantly remind ourselves that terms that to us are commonplace are not so commonplace for other people 

He also stresses the natural instinct to consider the impact of your words on the person you’re talking to:

The concentration, not only on the wonderful things you have to say but on how they might be understood, is a doorway into smooth passage of what you want to say to the other person. You know, I think we all have this impulse to do this even when we write emails and in messaging. There’s a little part of our head, no matter how truncated the message is, in some little part of our head we’re wondering how it’s landing on the other person, which is why we use smileys and emoji. We want to make sure it’s not misunderstood…The more we build that up, the more we build on that desire to be aware [of the other person], the better we can be and you don’t need to do it through improvising exercises alone you can practice during the day in your private life.

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