Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

Alan Alda’s guide to reaching kids and other smart people

girlinPink Alan Aldas guide to reaching kids and other smart people

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Actor Alan Alda, who’s also a science nut, once used a walk with his 5-year-old grandson to explain evolution. Later, he heard the boy asking his older sister about something he didn’t understand.

“Why don’t you ask Grandpa?” she said.

Answered the boy, “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

Find out below what Alda did next.

Specialists in any field — medicine, math, finance, whatever — who want to communicate with lay people have to not just get people interested but keep them interested.

Here are 6 ways to do it.

1) Tell human stories

A year ago, few of us had ever heard of Myelodysplastic Syndrome .  ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts’ battle with the disease changed that.

Because Roberts’ story gave the devastating disease a human face, we were interested enough to learn that MDS is a blood disorder that can result from treatment for another cancer — in Roberts’ case, breast cancer. The treatment for it is a painful bone marrow transplant.

When  Roberts came back to work this week, the sister who provided the transplant was on the GMA set in New York, and more than 6 million people were watching.

The story even got on-air calls from President Obama and Hilary Clinton.

2) Use metaphors and comparisons. 

Once past childhood, all of us learn new things by comparing them to things we already understand. If we’re told it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, we know not to go outside barefoot.

When we hear that the meteor that fell on Siberia exploded with the force of 20 atomic bombs, was the size of a bus, and was momentarily brighter than the sun, we were not only awed but scared. What if one fell here?

When we read that a Greenland glacier calved a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan, we can imagine being in a boat nearby.

For science journalists, metaphors are a stock in trade.

Paleontologist Brian Switek, who says he fell in love with dinosaurs at the age of five, writes blog posts crammed full of metaphors. In one piece Switek calls the Molly fish found in aquariums “a sexual parasite . . .  like an unpleasant exe or an irritating hitchhiker.”

More extended metaphors work too. In this New Yorker piece, surgeon Atul Gawande tells us what hospitals could learn from The Cheesecake Factory about cost control.

Easily understood words, friendly tone

Specialized fields are by definition complex. Which means the words you use to talk about them to non-specialists should be short, clear and engaging, but not simplistic.

Good technology writing, for instance, is friendly and approachable, like a conversation with an intelligent friend.  It assumes your listener is both curious and bright enough to understand what you’re saying.

Use humor, but use it carefully.

In the rarified world of peer-reviewed journals, humor is a No No. As one California professor wrote,

Because science writing is objective rather than subjective . . . you will be penalized for the use of humor. . . Humor and emotive criticism usually get in the way of a clear message.”

Whatever the professor meant by “emotive criticism”, we probably have to accept that peer-reviewed journals are not likely to be funny.

But there’s still plenty of room for wit in non-academic writing about science . Read anything by Steve Silberman  or Brian Switek.

The one thing to avoid is condescension.

In an article called “The Unwritten Rules of [science] Journalism,”   science writer Adam Ruben wrote

“Remember that ordinary people [italics mine] cannot understand units of measurement. Therefore, you should always explain measurements in relation to familiar objects, such as the length of a football field or the number of something that would fit within the period at the end of this sentence.”

Writer Soren Wheeler took offense.

“The people I want to reach are not dumb, they just don’t think about these things all day long. So putting things in terms of something people can understand? Nothing could be closer to the core of what I do, what I love doing.”

Use graphics or video

Last year, determined to find ways to, as he put it, “explain hard things in plain ways,” Alan Alda started something called “The Flame Challenge.” The challenge was for scientists to explain fire in terms an 11-year-old could understand.

After scientists reviewed the entries for accuracy, they were judged by 11-year-olds.

The hands-down winner was Ben Ames, a graduate student in quantum optics who wrote, narrated, animated, and composed every element of the film included the song at the end. (Don’t miss this one.)

This year’s challenge? Explain time – a question posed by a 9-year-old.

Finally, speak to one person — and aim for the heart.

Good science writing is like a talk with a friend — warm, informal and conversational. and if it’s to connect, it has to connect with the emotions.  

People remember what makes them feel – which is another way of saying that the way to our heads is through our hearts.

So. How to write about science and other specialized fields?

  • Remember what it’s like not to know all the answers, or even any of them.
  • Give a friendly, step-by-step explanation
  • Include the “So what?” Why should people care?
  • Make your audience curious enough to want to know more.

How would you explain your specialty to an 11-year-old?Comment above.

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