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I'm so happy to meet you.
I really think you're one of the most special people.
So we're talking about and thinking about storytelling, and you've done it so many different ways. Can you talk about where you've come to and all those years and all that experimentation with how to get a story out into the world and how to captivate people with a story?
You know, something I found that's kind of interesting, teaching scientists to communicate better.
Which is like your obsession, so we should say you're obsessed with science.
And you've done a whole bunch of stuff with PBS. And your big thesis is if these guys knew how to engage an audience, we would get further with our science, we'd have more funding, we'd have--
Well, science would be a little less under attack.
It would be more funding for it. It would be better collaboration among scientists who don't have the same field of knowledge. They speak diffe...
rent languages and they need to communicate among them, among themselves--
Right, to engage, like huge teams.
So we've, in the United States and other places around the world, we've trained about 8000 scientists and doctors over the last eight years.
And when you say we, it's you.
Well no, it's that it's I have the Alda Center for Communicating Science, which is based in Stony Brook University. So we've trained a lot of people. And the interesting thing is, when you, this is to answer your question that you asked several miles back. (laughing)
I'm like that, so just hang with me.
Yeah. The interesting thing is, they don't know they have a story very often. We say, you know, the public is really gonna be interested in your story. Don't tell us the details before you make us want to know the details by telling us a terrific story. So I don't have a story. Then it turns out they have great stories. They just don't hear them as stories. And I think one of the problems is, it's an understandable problem. Scientists are trained not to be personable when they communicate about their work to other scientists because you don't want some medication that was put on the market because the scientist who invented it is really cute and tells great stories about--
This amazing event they had in the middle of the night when they got this inspira, well, that's great to get us interested in it, but it's not the best way to find out if the real science has been done on that. So when scientists are communicating to one another, they're much more deliberate about it. It's not as, they get trained out of being appealing. They don't even say the word I.
That's changed in the last hundred years. I wrote a play about Marie Curie and her thesis that she wrote about radioactivity is very personal. She said I did this and then I did that. That didn't work, so I tried this. She wouldn't be able to say that now. She'd have to say this was done and then that was done.
Okay, so now I have like seven questions. One is, they're striving for this objectivity, right?
Because that makes it seem more legit.
Well, it is more legit.
And they're more distanced from it.
Yeah, it's not a personal exposure.
Right. And they don't have some kind of personal agenda. It's really the science is the science and they don't want to insert themselves.
It should be replicated, should be able to be replicated by anybody with any other personality.
Right, right, right. So you meet these scientists and they say I don't have a story.
And you have to sell them on the fact that of course they do.
Well, you just gotta ask them some questions. There's a wonderful nano scientist that was in one of our workshops. And a few months earlier he had discovered how to make the world's thinnest glass. It was one atom thick. The top was the same atom as the bottom.
And they called it two-dimensional glass.
So he had discovered something new about how glass is structured. And he wrote about it and it was picked up by one science journal and that's about it. Then he took our class and in the course of the workshop I found out that he had discovered this about this thin glass by accident. He and his graduate student were trying to do something entirely different, and they saw this muck forming that turned out to be thin, thin glass. I said, you know, that interests people like us on the outside of science. Something remarkable like this, you've learned something new about nature that nobody ever heard before. But you did it by accident. That's an interesting story. So the next time he gave an interview, he started with that story and whatever else he had picked up in the workshop, he was much more communicative. The story of that glass was then picked up by websites and newspapers all across the United States, Great Britain, and then venture capitalists started calling him, asking him if they could commercialize it. That's the difference between telling a story, and it's not much of a story. It's not a, it's a--
It's a nice lead, really.
Yeah, it's not Oedipus Rex. (laughing) It's just a story. But any kind of story helps. But the thing about Oedipus Rex is kind of important because to me the best kind of story, and you're interested in stories, so I'm interested to know what you think about this.
This is what I think. I want to hear what you think. Aristotle said a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don't think that's the whole story. I think there's more too it than that. And I think he found what more there was to it when he was talking about Oedipus Rex. When he was trying to figure out what made that a good play, he came across the idea of dramatic action. So I'm from the theater, so that means a lot to me. To me that makes it a really good story. Because all my life I've been on the stage telling stories to an audience that had this dramatic action. And what makes it dramatic and makes it action is that the hero or heroine is trying to achieve something. That's probably true in any story. Some effort to get somewhere. Or at least you go from here to there whether you're trying or not. But in a dramatic story, you're really trying hard to get to your objective. But there's an obstacle in the way. Maybe it's been thrown in your path by the antagonist. Or for a scientist, the beaker breaks and a year's work is all over the floor. Your graduate student quits. You lose your funding. Your mother gets sick. You can't work late nights. All this stuff happening keeps you back and you gotta fight your way through the obstacle to get where you're going. People can't take their eyes off that kind of a struggle to overcome an obstacle. If the end goal seems really important--
You have the stakes--
And you really want them to get through that obstacle. And almost everybody has not only a goal, but an obstacle. This is life. Life gives you obstacles. They come in for free.
And is that why we're so hungry for that story? Because we want to be encouraged? That sometimes people beat through...
I wouldn't be surprised, that's a good idea. Yeah, that's a very interesting question because, I mean, I think what you're saying is that we vicariously have our problems solved watching somebody else fight through it.
Or even believe that they're solvable.
'Cause they do say that research shows that just one story that is true for somebody changes your whole outlook on something. So let's say you have a disease and you've been told the set of facts about how that disease typically plays out. And then you get one piece of contrary data told to you in a story. That that is enough to change your own immune system.
Because there's some sense of like, well, it doesn't have to be like this. There's actually an alternative. And I think that we're smart enough as storytelling animals and story receiving animals to extrapolate from Odysseus, let's say, making it through and making it home, to thinking well maybe that means that I can become an actor or I can finish this book or I can--
At the very least we hang onto the story. We identify with the person going through this, this quest and this obstacle. And it may turn out to be therapeutic for us, but at least it engages us.
Well this is what your scientists, maybe one of the things you're teaching your scientists is, to be empathetic with the people outside of your circle.
Which is to say, they don't know these terms, and so they need a little hook. Like us outsiders, us lay people, don't understand your one atom thick glass. But if you could give me something I do understand as a little way to bring me into the middle of your circle, but that takes a bit of imagination on the scientist's part to say oh, they need this. 'Cause they're not like me. That isn't what they do all day. They're raising children all day or they're on a stage all day or they're writing a book all day.
That's the heart of it. You have to be able to not only have the imagination to think this person has a different background from me, you really need that. And you also need to be able to say I think I can figure out what this person is going through while I try to tell them about this. Whether you're facing them and getting cues from their body language and figuring out what they're feeling and thinking, or if you're writing for them. If you're writing for them, you can still imagine what they're thinking and feeling as they get to the end of a sentence of yours. What are they ready to hear next? Not so much what are you ready to tell them.
What are they ready to hear. Where are they from their point of view. It's so much easier to think about things from our point of view.
Yeah. But it's so fascinating. When you flip and think how do I want the people who are listening to this to feel or how might they be feeling right now. And it's just so fascinating to leave your own head actually and try to inhabit the heads of the--
That's why I don't understand why it's not self-reinforcing. It feels so good to connect to another person.
Doesn't it feel good?
I mean, you and I are looking at--
I've had a headache for three hours. I haven't felt this good all day. Like, I am high right now.
I came in tired from a whole day of talking and I'm energized 'cause we connected, we got some contact between us. There's a channel open between us. And I think you're right. I think there's something fundamental about storytelling. I think we're storytelling animals. And it's very interesting. I've interviewed scientists, one in particular I can think of, who uses a functional MRI machine. And he had somebody watch a movie and records the brain activity. That's the same brain activity that happens when he tells someone else the story of the movie. It's as though he's seeing the movie again. And the person he's telling it to is in an MRI machine and they're showing the same brain activity that the guy showed when he watched the movie.
Their brains are synced up by a story.
It's so cool.
Isn't that wonderful?
Yeah, I mean, because it's actually quite hard to connect with another person almost any other way. I mean, I would think that this dry sharing of information that scientists might have been more used to or might've been more common before you got your hands on them, I would wonder what that MRI looks like. 'Cause my gut is that it is lighting up much less of the brain.
I don't know. It could be. Certainly if you're talking one person who's steeped in technical ideas to somebody who never heard them before. Hard to sync them up without a story. But I asked one scientist have you ever had this feeling of exaltation or pleasure hearing something technical? She said, "Oh, I remember where I was standing, "what I was wearing. "Tears came to my eyes and it was the first time I," and I can't remember this technical term, but it was an unintelligible technical term that she read about. (laughing) She read about something happening in a channel of the cell--
Yeah, like the vagus nerve or something.
One particular cell, some occurrence in the cell. She said, "Oh my God, that's it! "That's the basis of everything." And she'll never forget that moment when she read it in a science journal. But she spoke that language. She had devoted her life to studying that. So of course it was emotional to her. But when scientists talk to the rest of us, we haven't spent 30 years studying what they're telling us about something. So they gotta tell us a story.
And do you help them? I mean, how do you think about character in this? Because I would think that the scientists might want to make the protagonists like the atoms.
It could be.
Like are they able to--
Yeah, no, it doesn't have to be a person.
I mean, the protagonist could be an insect or a cell, it could be a cancer cell, could be trying to take over.
But there is a char, but it is a character?
Going through something.
It's a character.
And it has traits and it has things it wants and it has things it does by its nature and then it's derailed somehow. I mean, this is the standard component pieces of narrative at work.
One of the first people right along those lines, one of the first people we had, a scientist we had in an improv class, a workshop.
'Cause you make them do improv.
Is that so funny?
Because improvisation is at its best what makes you connected to another person.
So tell us a story about a scientist. Have you had some people that you thought, oh boy, I just don't think I'm gonna be able to show you how to tell this story in a way that doesn't dumb it down? Because the dream that you're shooting for is that there's a way to share very complex information that is also engaging and memorable. And that's quite a Venn diagram of complexity and engaging and memorable.
Well, after we, our method is that after we work on some basic improvisation exercises, which put you in touch with the other person, we work on distilling the message. And one way you do that is really a lot of fun. We bring, we show the scientists a video of people in the street and we ask them simple questions. What's DNA? What's basic science? And they see that these people who have not spent their lives studying science often have a hard time answering questions that to the scientists are basic. And we say now we're gonna read you one of your scientific papers.
Oh God. I mean, it must be like--
And that's your audience. How can you make it clear to them? And everybody takes turns helping make that particular, just the abstract. The abstract is the part that's supposed to explain the whole thing, which is--
Right, right, right.
Kind of hard to follow for people on the outside world.
We have, my daughters play lacrosse, and I remember watching, we had these two guys coaching them and they were young. They're 10 years old or something. And I'm watching the game and the balls are on the floor. Nobody can catch anything. Nobody has any idea where to be. And then they come in for a time out and the guy's drawing this complex X's and O's, here's where you want to be, and you want to be on the crease and I want you on the eight meter and whatever. And I'm thinking, oh my darling.
Yeah, well you've gotta go through an experience. See, I believe very strongly, especially after eight years of formally helping people communicate better, you can't just give them tips. You can't show them diagrams. You've gotta put them through an experience that internalizes what you hope they can learn about say, communication. So what the experience we put these scientists through, after they try to figure out how to communicate in a clear, vivid way what's in this abstract of this scientist's paper, try to make it clear to the people on the screen, the every day people, what we call real people. Say, okay, you think you got it now? They say okay. So we got those real people here now. We bring 'em in. Now they have to talk to actual people and find out if they get it.
And I coached them beforehand and say don't pretend you get it if you don't get it. Don't pretend you don't get it. Be honest with them. Tell them what's clear to you. It's an amazing experience for the scientists because they want to communicate. They're natural teachers. They want to share their knowledge that they've--
And they're enthusiastic.
Oh my God, they love, they love nature and they love understanding how it works. And they want us to understand it. But it's so easy to forget when you know something in all its complexity, it's hard to remember that the other person doesn't know it that way. You gotta help them get up to speed.
Yeah, I had stage three cancer when I was 36.
You did? Stage three?
Mmm-hmm. And when I got in there, this doctor was talking so fast and I raised my hand from the table and I said, I just want to remind you, yesterday I was like a housewife in the suburbs. I don't know any of this vocabulary. This is all, I was just sweeping a floor yesterday and planning a birthday party.
Thank God you had the presence. Oh my God.
You've got to slow down and use regular words.
You were an ideal patient because you were helping him communicate.
And did he change his tune?
It was a woman.
Sorry, a little stereotype.
Yeah, I caught you, mister. Don't think that's not gonna go noticed. (laughing) So she did, she did, and actually I'm empathetic to the other side which is, she's banging from door to door to door to door. She's seeing 40 women a week who have cancer. So what does it take per your empathy for your scientists, your beloved scientists? You have to reset between every appointment. She has to walk out the door of patient A and come into me and say, who is this? First-timer? Never been to, never had a mammogram? Okay, let's go.
I know someone who trains doctors to have more empathy. And just what you said about going into the room, coming down the hall from one other patient to see another patient, or from a meeting or administrative conference. She says, "When you put your hand on the doorknob, "that's the signal, leave everything else outside. "Now you're entering this patient's world "and that's all you have to think about now." So it's a clue, it's a memory aid.
To get into her world and not yours.
Isn't it amazing how often the difference between being effective or compassionate comes down to something very small? Like some little, tiny technique like that, that you know, 'cause for a doctor that could be the difference between sort of talking over somebody and power talking you into a nub or being slow and being responsive and making eye contact and knowing who you're talking to. It's just this little, tiny--
That's right. And that, see, what you just did, that to me is the difference between an experience and getting a tip.
The difference is if somebody said to the doctor in some class once, now, when you go into the room, always remember that it's all about the patient. So that might, the doctor might remember that once or twice.
Right, right, right.
But if you say get in the habit, every time you touch the doorknob, that's an experience.
Right, right, right.
And have them touch the doorknob and go into the room and focus on the patient.
So when you look back at all your years acting, did you get to a point where you were doing a few things each time before you began a scene to sort of reset your empathy meter and try to stay present?
'Cause it must be hard.
Well, two answers to that question. One is just being in contact with the people I work with. I learned back in the days of doing M*A*S*H that we got an enormous amount out of just sitting in a circle between shots instead of going to our dressing rooms.
Or going on your cellphone which is what they probably do now.
Yeah, well now we didn't have cellphones.
But we had to scream at each other. (laughing) So we would just sit in a circle and make fun of one another and laugh for like an hour. And we'd take that connectiveness and bring it onstage and in front of the camera. And we had life, we had the life happening between us. It wasn't I say my line and then you say your line. We were interactive. The other thing, remembering the circumstances that put you where you are in the scene. I think most actors do this. You don't just come on and suddenly start talking. You remember where you're coming from, what you're headed toward. And that puts you in it before you even get there.
Sometimes you just jump into it. Some of the best things I've done where when I didn't know how I was gonna do it and I just lept into it and I found myself doing it. That's where you trust yourself and it works.
Why do you think that the storytelling on M*A*S*H was so strong? I mean, was it the magical confluence of great acting, great writing, great directing? People were so entranced by that story and it for so long. After all these years do you look back on it--
I don't think anybody knows why it struck people the way it did. It was an unusual phenomenon. There was wonderful writing and acting and directing. I think one of the things, one of the things that helped us was the way we would sit and be together all the time and we had, we had a real connection among us that played out as the character's connection. But beyond that, something that most entertainment doesn't have, it was about real people who really lived through a horrifying experience and no matter how funny or silly it ever got, underneath it all was our remembrance of the hard times they lived, life and death experiences that they had to work through. People losing their limbs, losing their lives. That wasn't trivial. That wasn't hijinks at the front. And we all agreed on that before we started doing it, that that's, that we weren't gonna go for silly at the expense of the pain.
There was such great specific, I mean, in terms of great storytelling, for me I'm a person who reads for character and watches for character, and there was such great depth of character on that show. I mean, each person was so fabulously specific and quirky and idiosyncratic, and then therefore the ways that those characters connected together were also idiosyncratic.
You get better stories if the characters have the idiosyncrasies of real people.
'Cause now that you've tried storytelling in so many different ways, which is to say standing on a stage or helping somebody learn to stand on a stage and tell their story, telling stories on paper, telling stories with a giant canvas that is M*A*S*H, and the massive support that was that, I mean, there must've been hundreds of people working on that show over the course of all those years.
And to be able to experiment with that many different ways of storytelling must be so--
With many different kinds of storytelling, and that's what kept us interested and going. We had dreams, we had letters home, we had one story was told from the point of view of the patient. The camera was the patient and you only saw what the patient saw. And that excited us every time we did that.
It's such an exercise in empathy, isn't it? 'Cause that even wanting to show it from the patient's perspective has to take somebody on that set saying, you know who we're leaving out here? Like, you know whose story we're not showing as fully as we could?
All these patients that are coming through.
Yeah, it makes you think things in a deeper way. You come in from another angle once you focus on the one character's point of view. I wrote a story once. It was called The Concerns of the Dead, the Follies of the Living. And a soldier dies and gets up out of his body and he says, "I'm not dead. "I don't feel dead. "What are all these people doing with my body?" And he keeps going around trying to explain to people he's not dead. And meanwhile they're having petty arguments. They're alive and they're wasting their lives arguing about these petty things.
It's so cool, the ways to experiment with storytelling.
It perks you up, you know? There's so many different ways to tell a story. And getting stories out of patients, for instance, is very important to doctors. That's a whole new way to look at it.
Yes, to diagnose. I'm really involved with our children's hospital, and so with children who aren't articulate and don't know how to name precisely where their aches or pains are, it's sort of essential to know how to get a kid talking such that you can get enough information that maybe you could get to a correct diagnosis a little bit sooner.
But that really takes this, what we're doing. I mean, that takes a lot of listening and a lot of...
And very often if the patient is telling a story, they'll say something that they wouldn't have said if you say tell me all the times you were sick.
Right. Right, right, right. And it's the things that they don't even know are symptoms that fall into a story, but if you are told to just state your symptoms, you wouldn't mention that you were dizzy earlier this morning.
You might have a story about what happened at work that day that reveals a whole other set of symptoms that you don't even recognize as symptoms.
Right, exactly. Exactly. In fact, my father had a strange illness and he was telling this story of going down to see his brother at a lacrosse game and he left his Dopp kit on the top of the car and the Dopp kit flew into the highway. And the doctor said, "Was there any medication "in your Dopp kit?" And he said, "Oh my God, I didn't take my Coumadin."
Oh my God.
And the doctor said, "That's what happened. "That's why you fainted."
Wow, this is perfect.
I gotta remember this to tell the doctors.
Oh well, we're gonna stay in touch, so I'll remind you.
All right. (laughing)
Okay, I have a little speed round for you. Are you ready?
Yeah, I hate these questions.
Okay, I'm gonna ask you anyway.
That's all right. I'll just let me hating them.
Name a book you wish you had written.
A book I wish I had written?
The book I wish I had written?
A book, the book.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset.
There, you see?
Uh-huh. What was the last story that made you cry?
I think the last sentence of The Handmaid's Tale. I didn't cry, but--
I'm reading it right now.
It's a great book.
Great, great book, and the series on television is the first series I've ever seen made from a book that was just as engaging as the book.
I'm psyched. I haven't touched it and I'm not gonna watch it till I'm finished.
Really good, really good. But that book is extraordinary storytelling. I mean, it takes place in the future and yet it seems to be happening now.
It's not like science fiction.
It's not dystopian or any. It's like, yeah, this is what happens. And it's not hard to believe. So that last sentence of that book moved me a lot.
Yeah, yeah. If your mother wrote a book about you, what would it be called?
Well, you have to understand, my mother was a very loving mother, but she was also schizophrenic and paranoid. So her book title would be My Son is Wonderful, He Can Do Anything and He's Trying to Kill Me.
Oh, bless her heart.
Yeah, well, yeah, well.
Well, yes, thank you. It took me a long time to realize it wasn't her fault because she was mentally ill. As a kid you don't know that.
Right, right. You think everything's your fault because you think everything's about you.
I used to think it was my fault.
Yeah, that's a lot to wrestle with.
Who can't you live without, creatively speaking?
Oh, right! We're in!
I can't live without my wife, creatively or any other way.
Yeah, and it's how long have you been married?
60 years last month.
What did you do for her?
Did you go somewhere and did you give her a big, fat diamond ring?
Oh, yeah, we had a really lovely, yeah. First of all, we had dinner with our children and their spouses. Yeah, we had a great time.
That's awesome. If you could get everyone in the world to read one book, what would it be?
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? (laughing) Guess who wrote that?
Which is Alan Alda's new book.
I know, it's so good. I just read it. It's fantastic.
Did you really? Oh great.
Yeah, it's fantastic.
Oh, thank you.
It's gonna do a lot of good. I just love talking to you, as I'm sure you can tell.
Me, too. I really had a good time.
Thanks. Thanks for... (upbeat blues music)