I first encountered Alan Alda as the irreverent, anti-war doctor in M*A*S*H* the TV show.  It was one of those shows that seemed important at the time because of its anti-war attitude and other acts of rebellion.  It gave comfort to those of us for whom the war was a long way off, but the draft a distinct possibility.  Alda was the heart and soul of the show.

I next watched him at the host of Scientific American Frontiers, a science show I loved, not just because of the science, and Alda as the ever-curious host, but also because my brother was writing the music for it.  Eight seconds of grizzly bear!  Fifteen seconds of tropical fish!  Twelve seconds of ominous robots!

I was delighted, then, when Alda started writing, and especially when he published his latest book on communications,  If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating.  At the very least, I figured, his book proved that the trend begun by Malcolm Gladwell was well and truly over:  one-word titles. 

It seemed like time for a Q and A.  Here goes.

Nick: You describe empathy as perhaps the most important key to human communications (and probably other species as well, but let’s stick to humans for now).  Why is empathy so important?

Alan Alda: Empathy is often thought to be the same as compassion, or that it leads directly to compassion. I think the meaning of the word that’s most useful is that empathy is simply being aware of what another person is feeling. If you want to be kind to that person, empathy is a valuable tool. (What does this person really need at this moment?).

But it’s just a tool. If you’re a con artist and you want to separate me from my money, you can be aware of every emotion that flickers across my face as you tell me your sad tale. It’s pretty useful in poker, too. But I think it’s vital in communicating. (“Is this person following me? Are they feeling good about what I’m saying?”)

Nick: Can you explain what Improv can teach people about communication?  

Alan Alda: Improv puts you in touch, in sync, with the other person. It trains you to observe them, to respond instantly. But this is not comedy improv. There can be plenty of laughter, but it’s the laughter that comes from the joy of spontaneity and connection. When you focus like this on another person I believe you get a booster shot of empathy.


Nick: Have you ever struggled with stage fright, and what did you do to get through it?

Alan Alda: I had a really scary experience on stage in London once a long time ago. During a monologue, a voice in my head said, “What makes you think you’ll remember the next line?” I got the next line out, and then the voice said, “Okay, you got that one. What makes you think you’ll get the NEXT one?”

I was dripping with flop sweat.

I can’t remember what I did at the next performance, but it never happened again. I’m too convinced now by the mantra of improv that there are no mistakes. If you know that what could be called a mistake is just something that leads to something else, it can’t worry you as much.

Nick: You’ve had a lifelong interest in science and your professional life has often meant connecting acting — the field you’re best known in — and science.  What do you see as the common elements in those two very different professions?

Alan Alda: Acting, and all the other arts, require imagination. And so does science. And while science requires rigor, so do the arts. Not just any note will do in a symphony, or any color in a painting — or any casual stab at relating on the stage.

Nick: You discuss the important of presence to effective communication.  How do you train yourself to become more present?  What is the biggest barrier getting in the way of presence?  

Alan Alda: For me, presence is being fully there with the other person. You’re paying attention to them and they know it. You both relax in each other’s company. There are a number of barriers to presence: thinking about your agenda, wishing you weren’t there, and focusing on how you’re doing are three good ones for drifting out of touch.

Nick: Do you work consciously on charisma, and what tips can you offer speakers to become more charismatic?

Alan Alda: It seems to me that trying to be more charismatic would be kind of dangerous. I think people are attracted to, pay attention to, people who seem authentically themselves. Energy and dynamism are appealing when those qualities arise spontaneously, but they can be off-putting when others see the effort going into it. And we may think we’re putting on a good show of being captivating, but they do see the effort.

Nick: Finally, how do you prepare when you’re getting ready to give a speech?

Alan Alda: I get in a quiet room by myself for an hour and pace while I think about the three points I want to make (because I can only remember three points and so can an audience – if they can remember that much). Then I go out without notes and have fun with friends I’ve never met before.

Nick:  Anything else you want to add?

Alan Alda: No thanks. My fingers hurt.

Nick: Thank you, Alan Alda! Sorry about the fingers!

We’ll discuss empathy, Improv, and charisma at our next Powerful Public Speaking workshop, October 24th, in Boston.  Sign up now! Spaces are limited and going fast.


  1. Nick, for all of us who watched M*A*S*H over the years, this is an interesting glimpse into Alan Alda’s mind as a working professional. Interestingly, his attitude toward performing doesn’t seem much different from his on-screen persona: easy-going, always in the moment, and seemingly without effort. Thank you for the peek!

  2. I am grateful for how Mr Alda has used his fame and charisma to inform and engage people in the wonder and usefulness of science. Enriching on both a personal and public level. Which is why I’ve doubled down on my efforts in STEM education. Presence, authenticity and three main points, thanks for the reminders.

    I had an opportunity to hear Carl Zimmer, NYTimes Science writer at a workshop on communicating science. My #1 takeaway: it is hard for most scientists to really understand how much your audience doesn’t know about your topic. Providing context and background (by way of story if possible) are critical.

    1. Thanks, Joe — science needs great storytellers, and Alda gets our eternal thanks for his throwing of the shoulder to the story wheel!

  3. Nice to see Alan Alda in print again. I’ve read his memoirs – Don’t get your dog stuffed – he’s one of my favourite humans and I’m a big fan. I also never get tired of MASH reruns…..Thank you.

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