Alan Alda on The Art & Science of Relating and Communicating

The Art and Science of Communication

Alan Alda needs no introduction. He played Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H, appeared on ER, The West Wing, and he’s appeared in numerous films from Crimes and Misdemeanors to Bridge of Spies. For eleven years, he hosted the award-winning series Scientific American Frontiers, and he founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He has also won seven Emmy Awards and received three Tony nominations, is an inductee in the Television Hall of Fame, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in The Aviator.

For many years, he has been studying communication. His latest book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating will have you laughing and contemplating the art of communication. You’ll find his insights and tips immediately useful in both business and personal settings.

I recently spoke with him about his latest work.

 

“Real conversation can’t happen if listening is just my waiting for you to finish talking.” –Alan Alda

 

It’s a gross understatement to say that you see things differently. For instance, most people don’t go through a difficult surgery at the dentist, one messing up your smile, and end up with ideas about improving communication. I’m interested in two aspects of this experience.

 One, how did it inspire you?

The experience of a dentist’s poking in my mouth with a scalpel — without seeming to care if I understood his terse one-word description of the after-effects – was pretty much the essence of poor communication. All he said was, “Now, there will be some tethering.” What? Tethering? “Tethering. Tethering!” He just kept saying the same word over and over. Too cowed, I let him go ahead, and my smile after that was really suitable for playing villains.

He knew what he meant, but he didn’t notice that I wasn’t getting it. To the extent he did notice, it made him impatient. That story has come back to me many times, especially the more I see that it’s up to us who are trying to communicate something to be aware of what’s going on in the other person’s head.

 

“People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another.” –Alan Alda

 

And two, have you always had a unique way of viewing the world or was this cultivated over time?

I don’t know if this is unique, but some of my earliest memories are of trying to figure out how things got that way, or why adults were behaving the way they were. My mother was schizophrenic and paranoid, and I always had to check her reality against real reality. I think that helped me question things and always check them out from another point of view.

 

 

The Importance of Relating

Your book starts off talking about the importance of relating. I’m struck by your humility. You’re always up front with your mistakes, what you should have done, what you didn’t know at the time. For example, you say:

My first blunder was assuming that I knew more than I did.”

I was paying more attention to my own assumptions than I was to him.”

I wasn’t listening.”

And then your story teaches us about relating, but also, we immediately relate to you because of your openness. Is this a relating tactic?

Using Improvised Persuasion to Achieve Your Goals

 

One of my beliefs is that everyone can benefit from understanding sales techniques.  I simplify it to say, “We are all in sales.”

Whether you actually are a sales professional or not, you will find that successful people understand sales techniques and use them in everyday life.

  • Need funding for a new business?
  • Growing your platform? 
  • Need to convince your kids to eat more veggies?

Steve Yastrow is the author of Ditch the Pitch, a new book that teaches sales people to tear up the sales script and really understand your customer.  Steve founded Yastrow and Company and helps organizations improve results through sales and marketing techniques.

We recently had a chance to catch up and talk about persuasion.

 

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears: by listening.” -Dean Rusk

 

 

A New Approach to Persuasion

 

Sales VP’s all over the world will read the title of your book Ditch the Pitch and wonder:  “The pitch is how we sell others our ideas,” they will say, “It’s our main way of selling.”  You say that the pitch doesn’t work.  Why?

If a salesperson determines what he wants to say to a customer before he meets with that customer, the odds that this message will be the right message for this customer, at this time, are one in a million.  We can’t possibly know in advance, even with customers we’ve known for a long time, what their current mood, situation, attitudes and reactions to information will be.

Additionally, customers behave differently once they detect a pitch.  They get defensive. They resist sharing information.  They start thinking about the next meeting they need to go to.

Instead of the pitch, you have a new approach in persuasive communications.  What is it?Steve Yastrow Headshot

Improvisation.  I teach people to gain the confidence to tear up their sales pitch and create fresh, spontaneous, persuasive conversations that are interesting, relevant and meaningful to their customers.

As you have taught this model to sales leaders, have you had any pushback or concerns?  How do you help overcome the desire for a canned pitch since it is comfortable and familiar?

Often people tell me that they are not good improvisers and that they need a script to keep them on track.  The fact is, however, that these people are already awesome improvisers. Human beings were born to improvise.  We evolved to navigate an ever-changing, dynamic, unpredictable environment.  Consider this:  Have you ever had two 10-minute periods in your life that were exactly the same?  Of course not.  Without improvising, human beings wouldn’t have been able to use stone tools, track prey or cross Main Street.

And the most developed human improvisational skill is conversation.  Notice the social conversations you have; they are all created on the spot, in the moment, based on what happens in that particular interaction.  Ditch the Pitch helps people take their natural human talent for improvisation and bring it into their customer encounters.

 

“Not brute force but only persuasion and faith are the kinds of this world.” -Thomas Caryle

 

6 Habits to Persuade

 

Your book outlines six habits to persuade others.  Let’s just touch one as an example.  Habit #6 is, “Don’t Rush the Story.”  Would you highlight this one for us?

Everyone reading this interview is knowledgeable and expert about what they sell.  Inevitably, this expertise helps us quickly diagnose customer situations and develop solutions.  The problem is that we will always devise these solutions before our customers are ready to hear them, and if we tell them to our customers too soon we will overwhelm them.  The idea is to be patient and bring information into your persuasive conversation at a pace your customer can accept.