Well-known actor Alan Alda recently offered science communication advice that applies to scientists, federal agencies, companies and others who aim to apply science to shape public policies.

The heart of effective science communication “is relating,” said Alda, an actor, director and writer who co-founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at New York’s Stony Brook University. 

Alda spoke May 1 after receiving the 2016 Public Welfare Medal, the National Academy of Sciences’ most prestigious award. He received it, the academy said, for “extraordinary application of the skills honed as an actor to communicating science on television and stage, and by teaching scientists innovative techniques that allow them to tell their stories to the public.”

“The idea of listening to somebody before you try to shape how they think about something is an ancient idea, but it’s still revolutionary idea,” Alda said.

“While we are explaining things to somebody, are we reading them? Are we relating to them? Are we seeing if they’re getting it? Are we watching their body language, their tone of voice, and the expressions on their faces? Are they getting it, or are we just spraying information at them? Are they enjoying getting it? “These are some of the most important questions we can ask,” Alda said.

Alan Alda

(Photographer: Francis Specker/Bloomberg News)

Federal scientists trained by the Stony Brook science communication center include researchers working for the Environmental Protection Agency.

video of Alda’s speech is available online. Select the video titled “Awards Ceremony” in the video box, and Alda takes the stage about an hour and 20 minutes in.