​The Art of Explaining: A day with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science

Science communication workshop participants performing improv exercises

Imagine 20 University of Chicago faculty members flailing their arms and counting down from seven. Now, imagine those same faculty members saying their names with a coinciding gesture such as a golf pose or curtsy. 

Why do this? To learn about body language, listening to your audience, being in the moment and thinking quickly on your feet — all in the name of communications.

On Jan. 29, Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science-approved trainers Heather Barnes and Christopher Kramer led a workshop that discussed the importance of clear communication and utilized improv techniques to showcase the many ways conversational barriers can be broken down.

Let’s face it: We would all like to believe that our communication skills are solid. But unfortunately, there are times when we don’t communicate as clearly or accessibly as we would like. This can be true for biomedical researchers and health care providers. 

UChicago Medicine has partnered with the Alan Alda Center to teach our professionals how to explain their often complex and jargon-filled research to a general audience
Medical or scientific jargon can get in the way and cause information to be lost in translation. To help break this down, the University of Chicago Medicine has partnered with the Alan Alda Center to teach its faculty and postdocs how to better explain their  often-complex and jargon-filled research to a general audience.
On the surface, this may not sound like the most important skill to have. But did you know that science and what are considered common terms on an academic medical campus aren’t obvious to most people? If you were asked to define the word “physics” or “genomics” or “pharmacokinetics,” could you supply a solid answer? Many people can’t. That can lead to disengagement or disinterest. And in an era of decreasing funding for research and attacks on science, the ability to communicate the work that scientists do is critically important. 

To break the ice, Barnes told participants they would “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” The aforementioned flailing and silly gestures were meant to loosen up participants and bring an energetic charge to the room. This was followed by a friendly (but competitive) game of zip-zap-zup, which requires participants to stand in a circle and say “zip,” “zap” or “zop” while simultaneously pointing to a person of choice. If the chosen person compromised the order of zip-zap-zop, they were eliminated.
Alan Alda workshop participants doing improv exercises
Science professionals participate in exercises to improve their communication skills.

Following a quick break and a few more exercises, it was time to hunker down and discuss the lessons learned. For starters, Barnes and Kramer drove home the importance of telling a story with plain words. This entails stressing meaning, not details. The example used was a sports column detailing the end of a baseball game. We all know that sports can be confusing to someone who doesn’t play or watch them.

Most people aren’t well-versed in science, and as a result, may find it hard to trust what a scientist is saying

But this is just as true when a scientist or doctor tries to explain a process or procedure using jargon. It’s not that baseball or the procedure can’t be explained, it’s how it is explained and how that explanation is received that makes all the difference. Barnes and Kramer suggest focusing the message in this order: what’s the bottom line, why does it matter, and what are the supporting details. 

Simple enough, right? That was still to be tested.

To showcase what was learned, participants were asked to explain their job in three minutes. They were then challenged to do it in a minute and a half followed by just 30 seconds. But that was not the ultimate test. To prove mastery, faculty then had to explain their job description in six words or less. Now that’s what we call precise!