We Were Built to Connect with Other People—Here’s How to Be Better At It

Before you follow another "tip" or "trick," there's something Alan Alda wants you to know.

Alan Alda: I don't really like tips; tips about communicating well, tips about writing. What I would prefer is a process that transforms you so the tips take place automatically.
I mean for instance, very often a tip is given: “When you're speaking to a crowd, vary the pace of your speech, vary the volume.”

Well, those are two good things, but if they happen mechanically it gets to be kind of boring. Some people are encouraged when they're coached: “At this point leave where you're standing and walk over there and take a pause.”

Well, maybe that makes sense in terms of how it's written; at the end of that paragraph you want to make a space before the next paragraph, but it doesn't necessarily make sense in terms of how you're talking and relating to the people you're talking with.

That—relating to them—should be the source of a pause, the source of moving, because it comes out of the thought process I'm going through and it comes out of the thought process I sense you're going through. Have you understood that last part? So now I'm thinking, if you have what's the next thing that I can tack onto that that will mean something to you? And if you haven't, should I clarify it a little more? So there's a dynamic relationship between us that leads to a change in pace, to a change in volume and that kind of thing.

A tip is just an intellectualization of that, which might be okay to give somebody once they've got the grounding in the ability to connect, but it ought to come out of the connection. It shouldn't be a checkbox that you tick off.

So I really don’t like tips. If I'm pressed really hard there are three tips that I do kind of follow. Probably it's a good idea to follow these tips after you get used to being connected to somebody, but there are three things that I like to do, I call it the three rules of three.

So the first rule is, I try only to say three important things when I talk to people. No more than three. If it's one thing that's maybe even better, but usually there's a lot to say. When I make notes on what I want to talk about, if I see I'm going on past three to four and five I start eliminating them or seeing if I can fold them into the other things. Because three things are really all I can remember and I don't work from notes when I talk to people and I advise other people not to. I never read it because reading just excommunicates you; it's not communication it's excommunication, in my view. So I can't remember more than three things, and I don't think they can remember more than three things, so what's the point of telling them stuff they're not going to remember? So I stick to three. That's rule number one of the rule of three things.
The second rule is, if I have a difficult thing to understand, if there's something I think is not going to be that easy to get, I try to say it in three different ways because I think if you come in from different angles you have a better chance of getting a three-dimensional view of this difficult idea, so I try to say it three different ways.

And the third tip, which I always forget, is that if I have a difficult thing that's hard to get, I try to say it three times through the talk, so that the first time you hear it you start to get used to it, the second time it's familiar and the third time you say, “Oh yeah, right. Okay.”
Now, I do follow those three tips, but I don't think I tell somebody: “You're going to get up to talk, here are three tips to remember.” It's a process. You've got to get transformed into being a better communicator. You've got to go through steps where it's like going to the gym, only it's a lot more fun than going to the gym because it involves connecting with another person and we're built to connect with another person. In spite of the fact that we often avoid it, it actually is fun when we get into that position. So if we could get ourselves transformed into liking connecting with the audience we're talking to or writing for, then these tips will happen automatically or finally we'll be able to put them to work in terms of that transformed way we have of connecting. It really feels good.

Alan Alda doesn't want you to take "pro tips" from anyone—not even Alan Alda. When it comes to his area of expertise—public speaking and empathetic communication—there are no hacks or shortcuts; if you want to be a world-class public speaker, you have to earn those stripes through the process of deeply understanding what it is to talk, listen, and connect. Alda calls tips intellectual abstractions; it's akin to the difference between information and knowledge, between parroting a few words in French and speaking the actual language. But, when pushed by yours truly at Big Think, Alda does give up the goods (willingly—we promise no Alan Aldas were harmed in the making of this video). His best tip to become a better communicator is what he calls the three rules of three. Listen to his practical hints for becoming a communication pro but, as he remarks, try to get there organically through the process. Alan Alda's most recent book is If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?


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One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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