First, Learn the Complex – Then, Explain it So Clearly that a Sharp 11 Year Old Can Grasp It (Alan Alda Issues a Science Challenge)

This is a terrific challenge, a really good idea – and, as importantly, brilliant advice to anyone who has anything to communicate.  (Which means — all of us!).

Here’s the story, from an article by Dahlia Withwick on How Can You Explain “Color” to an 11-Year-Old? – Alan Alda’s challenge to scientists: Let kids be the judges.

We have a lot to learn by teaching 11-year-olds.
We have a lot to learn by teaching 11-year-olds.

In 2011, Alan Alda—who is a longtime science enthusiast, PBS science sherpa, and founding member of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York—developed the Flame Challenge, a competition in which scientists around the country are tasked with explaining a complicated scientific idea to the satisfaction of thousands of exacting 11-year-old judges.

The challenge continues, now in it’s third year. This year’s challenge: “What is color?”

(Here’s my favorite line from the article, bolded in this paragraph:
11-year-olds also really don’t tolerate being talked down to. “Oh yeah,” he says. “The memorable line was the one kid who said, ‘It’s OK to be funny. But it’s not OK to be silly. We’re 11; we’re not 7.’ ” He laughs. “They want information. I have seen them turn down a lot of entries because the kids think there wasn’t enough information.”).

But, in the midst of the story of this challenge, there is some brilliant communication advice. So, if you ever need to communicate anything – in a written e-mail or memo, or a presentation or speech (which – you do!), read this carefully. I’ve bolded a line or two:

Sometimes fancy words are used in an effort to be precise, but in fact precision can actually be lost through confusion…
Alda was about to go speak at the annual conference for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I asked what he would be saying to all the scientists gathered there. He says it’s not about shortcuts or tricks for talking to regular people. “The thing is, scientists really want to do better at this. I see it in graduate students and senior scientists who are stars in their field. They understand what’s at stake,” he says. “When I talk about it, and when we do workshops, it’s not to impart a few tips. That’s the way communication is handled by a lot of books and programs.
But I actually think we have to habituate ourselves to a different way of expressing ourselves. And it’s not about expressing ourselves so much as it is about really making contact with the people we are talking to.” He adds: “We give a lot of thought to how to say things, when in fact, how it’s being received is much more crucial. At the center, we start with getting scientists focused on the person they are communicating with; to be aware of what’s happening in their brain. I think getting the audience to want to know more might be more valuable to them than getting them to understand a fact or two. For that to happen, you have to have a connection with them. You have to know how to reach them where they are.”

As I read the article, I realized this: To communicate effectively, you have to understand complexity, then you have to explain what you now understand in simple, clear, easy-to-grasp words/pictures/concepts to your specific audience — an audience that you have come to know, and one that you respect..

So, here’s the challenge: Learn the complex information to learn, and then practice your speech on an 11 year old. Only when the 11 year old signs off on it are you ready to explain it to the rest of us.

Alan Alda flame-challenge-300pxAnd, special thinks to Alan Alda for this brilliant challenge.


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