Alan Alda is a seven-time Emmy Award winner best known for playing Hawkeye Pierce in the classic television show, M*A*S*H. Alda’s interest in science led him to host the award-winning PBS series Scientific American Frontiers. Eleven years of interviewing scientists on the program convinced Alda that people with the best ideas are often terrible communicators.
In his new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face? Alda argues that when people fail in the art of relating and communicating with one another, it can have serious consequences on careers, communities, and our planet. For example,
“People are dying because we can’t communicate in ways that allow us to understand one another. That sounds like an exaggeration, but I don’t think it is. When patients can’t relate to their doctors and don’t follow their orders, when engineers can’t convince a town that the dam could break, when a parent can’t win the trust of a child enough to warn her off a lethal drug, they can all be headed for a serious ending.”
Alda’s quest to understand how we can relate to one another led him to UC Irvine professor James McGaugh, a prominent neurobiologist in the field of learning and memory. McGaugh told Alda that events tend to be remembered when they’re associated with a strong emotion. “Whether it’s highly joyful or frightening, the memories stick because they arouse our emotions,” says McGaugh.
At McGaugh’s lab at the university, participants take part in the ‘ice water experiment.’ McGaugh has subjects watch a series of photographs and then put their hand in a bucket of ice water. The test is intended to measure how many photos the person will remember one week later. Ice water activates the body’s stress-hormone response, which helps consolidate memories. You can guess the results. Those who plunged their hands in ice water remember the photos far better than those who did not.
McGaugh says that emotion helps us to remember things, which is why it’s important to tell stories. According to Alda, “If we’re looking for a way to bring emotion to someone, a story is the perfect vehicle. We can’t resist stories. We crave them.” But there’s a difference between a story and one that gets consolidated in our memories. The ice water experiment holds the key. According to McGraugh, adding a “little stress” can sear the memory in our brains.
A Little Stress To Your Story
A little stress: It’s the critical component of a powerful business narrative or presentation. If you can add just a little stress when you tell a story, says Alda, you can help lock that information in your audience’s memories. Stress’ can take the form of an obstacle you or your company have overcome on the way to a goal.
Here’s the best part. Alda learned that you don’t have to go that far to help your audience store the memory better. “If you go from not very emotional to just slightly emotional in a story, you can see an enhancement of memory,” according to McGaugh’s collaborator, Larry Cahill.
For example, laughter is an emotion that can help consolidate memories. It helps to explain why educator Ken Robinson’s TED talk has been viewed 45 million times. There are more laughs per minute in the presentation than you’ll find in many comedy movies.
Some of Robinson’s humor comes in the form of humorous short stories, while other forms of humor are self-deprecating. For example, Robinson says, “If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education. You’re not asked…”
“If they’re laughing, they’re listening,” Robinson explained when asked about his use of humor as a speaking tool. This explanation wouldn’t be a surprise to Alda. “Genuine humor and true, open laughter almost always lead to engagement,” he writes. Add emotion to your business narrative and you’re more likely to deliver a message that sticks. And keep in mind — just “a little stress” goes a long way.