Maybe this sounds familiar: You’re expressing a difficult idea, thought, or feeling, and at the moment, it seems to be going well. Your audience is nodding at the appropriate beats. Your cadence has an uncharacteristic flow and eloquence. You even snuck in the world profligate and are 90% sure you used it properly. (Well, 80% sure. Definitely going to look it up later.)
You take a deep breath, ask what everyone thinks, and realize that you’re getting the look. You know the one: mouths slightly agape, heads tilted in anticipation, and a squint like everyone just endured the world’s most strenuous eye exam. Everyone is more confused now than before you began talking.
Whether from public speaking or just having a heart-to-heart, life is full of these types of conversations. You’ve been there, I’ve been there, and Alan Alda has been there.
Though best known for his role on the 1970s sitcom M*A*S*H, Alda is a public speaker, science enthusiast, and long-time advocate for better science communication. He has interviewed scientists as the host of Scientific American Frontiers, won the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award, and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.
In that time, he has developed a playbook of strategies to help people engage in conversation and voice their ideas clearly. If these tips can help biologists explain genetic drift, physicists Hawking radiation, or linguists anything about Chomskyan linguistics, then chances are they can help us express our thoughts and feelings when we need others to understand them the most.
1. Make no more than three points
The human brain can only store so much information in short-term memory. The oft-repeated number is seven items (or chunks). That number comes from research in the 1950s and has been reinforced in our collective subconscious by the fact that so many things happen in sevens. Consider that before the advent of cell phones, people spent lots of time memorizing seven-digit phone numbers.
However, follow-up research suggests that short-term memory is far less robust, maxing out at a meager three to five items.
If you’re old enough to recall memorizing phone numbers, you’ll recognize some truth in this. No one digested every digit at once. Instead, they broke the number into smaller chunks which they learned separately — most often, area code (three digits), prefix (three digits), and subscriber number (four digits). Only with time, repetition, and application would a number enter long-term memory as a single entry in someone’s mental Rolodex.
Short-term memory performs no better with ideas or thoughts than telephone numbers. It can only hold so many topics and tangents, and once it’s at capacity, it needs to erase old information to upload anything new.
Alda agrees. He advises you to limit your conversation points to no more than three, allowing you and your partner to focus on the thought at hand while avoiding disruptive additions.
2. Explain difficult ideas in three different ways
As Alda said in his interview: “If I have a difficult thing to understand, if there’s something I think is not going to be that easy to get, I try to say it in three different ways. I think if you come in from different angles you have a better chance of getting a three-dimensional view of this difficult idea.”
One way to tap into this strategy is through metaphor. When Barbara Oakley was writing her book A Mind for Numbers, she reached out to professors who were highly ranked for their teaching skills. She discovered that across disciplines, the best professors were metaphor tacticians. They analogized key concepts or difficult ideas to better explain them.
According to Oakley, metaphors work by building on existing neural patterns established from previous learning. Those existing patterns then help create new neural networks for incorporating the new information. A physics teacher, for example, may explain the mind-boggling concept of the expanding Universe by comparing it to how raisin bread expands as it bakes. Such a metaphor helps students connect the cosmologically large with something previously experienced on Earth.
This strategy doesn’t dumb down the concept but instead makes it relatable and therefore easier to understand — getting at that “three-dimensional view” Alda champions. Other useful strategies can include examples, visuals, changing the frame of reference, and providing a this-not-that comparison.
3. Make important points three times
Repetition is a powerful communication tool because it helps us identify key information and transfer it from short-term to long-term memory.
When it comes to learning, the best kind of repetition is spaced out. Whether you’re memorizing a phone number or a complex physics equation, revisiting and applying the information over several weeks cements it in your brain by developing and strengthening the neural patterns where the information is housed. This process explains why flashcards are such an effective studying tool.
In some close-knit relationships, spaced repetition is a phenomenal tool. Teachers, parents, psychiatrists, or team managers can use it to return to and reinforce difficult ideas across many conversations.
But time is more limited in other relationships. Even so, repetition is still a useful tool. Anytime you repeat something, it signals that this information is important, so pay attention. It’s why song, speech, and soliloquy writers use repetition so liberally. Think Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the many soliloquies of Shakespeare, and, of course, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”
Express your thoughts clearly through connection
But Alda warns that tips only take you so far and may harm your efforts if you try to script your conversations like a formula to replicate someone else’s masterwork. Instead, Alda suggests that the true heart of communication is connection. Your goal shouldn’t be to enthrall your audience with a creative metaphor, meaningful pause, or witticism. That’s rhetoric, not communication.
“A tip is just an intellectualization of that, which might be okay to give somebody once they’ve got the grounding in the ability to connect, but it ought to come out of the connection. It shouldn’t be a checkbox that you tick off,” Alda said.
Ultimately, we have to build a connection deep enough for communication strategies to work. These connections then help you understand when you need to slow down, repeat a key idea, or explain things from another angle.