Ditch the Jargon, Change the World?

Listening and empathy are keys to effective communication. Scientific communication is jargon-heavy, but empathy-light. Let’s flip that paradigm.

“I speak to everyone in the same way, whether they are the garbage man or the president of the university.” ~ Albert Einstein

“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” That was the opening line in an ad for Vicks cough syrup that aired in 1984. That sentence became a comedy catchphrase that’s still in use today. Did Vicks’ ad agency hire an actor who played a doctor on a daytime soap because they thought no one wanted to hear from an actual MD on the topic of adult cough and cold symptoms? Maybe. Medical and science professionals can lapse into jargon pretty quickly, and jargon is the enemy of clear communication, particularly if you’re talking to someone who isn’t already savvy about the medical or scientific topic under discussion.

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), Acronyms Can Be Confusing
An example: Your doctor orders tests after you report symptoms of something that they need to get more information on before nailing a diagnosis. You get the tests, and then get a notice from your doctor’s patient portal that test results are available. When you open those test results, there are a blizzard of acronyms, like “EF” (that’s ejection fraction, a measure of your heart’s pumping efficiency, but if you don’t know that…you don’t KNOW that), or “BMR” (that’s basal metabolic rate, which is critically important to people with diabetes, but again, if you don’t know, you don’t know), or any one of the metric ton of acronyms clinicians use to speed up their note and report writing.

Why not ditch the jargon, and help everyone understand medical and science topics that matter to them? I’m not the only one asking that question, and some folks are working to answer it. Speaking of “playing doctors on TV,” if you’ve ever seen an episode of the classic TV comedy “M.A.S.H.,” you’ve seen Alan Alda’s equally classic performance as Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the Army trauma surgeon who was the lead character in the series.

Hawkeye Pierce as a Guru of Science Communication?
I was therefore utterly unsurprised to learn that Alan Alda is the founder and leading voice of a new center dedicated to improving communication about science and medicine, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The Center has developed the Alda Method(™), a mix of improvisation and storytelling theory and practice, to build training programs that help “scientists, medical professionals, students, and the public with opportunities to explore, learn, and practice communicating effectively about science and medicine.”

The Alda Center’s programs have been called pioneering by The Conversation, in a piece that argues that breaking down complex scientific topics requires both listening to, and empathy with, the audiences you’re sharing those complex scientific subjects with. Marge Overs, the managing editor of the Australian medical journal Medicine Today, attended the boot camp at the Alda Center and said in a piece about her experience, “Most of us began the week with presentations burdened by technical details — and by week’s end the jargon gave way to vibrant and personal stories.”

As someone dedicated to building health and science literacy, as well as someone whose first professional training was as an actor, I have found myself blending those two skills constantly in my own work. Which means I’m delighted to see those skills being taught to medical professionals. As much as scientific and medical journals rely on formula and jargon-heavy language in the articles they publish, translating those articles for wider consumption and understanding is critical to accelerating scientific discovery.

Simplicity: The Key to Science Communication
There are two quotes that drive my mission to widen health and science literacy:

  • “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” — Max Planck
  • “The lag between significant discovery and adoption into routine patient care still averages 17 years.” — E. Andrew Balas

If you’d like to do some light reading (I’m kidding — pack a lunch), here are some great pieces to further illuminate the importance of communication skills in science:

Efforts at improving communication skills, particularly listening and empathy, for the science communicator, will help scientists better connect with the average person. Work in places like the Alda Center will in turn help all us Average Joes and Janes understand how science matters in our everyday lives. Shedding light on new scientific truths, and accelerating the adoption of those truths, with storytelling, will make those new truths more accessible to, and understood by, all of us. That can give us all hope for the future — of science, of medicine, and of humanity.


Casey Quinlan covered her share of medical stories as a TV news field producer, and used healthcare as part of her observational comedy set as a standup comic. So when she got a breast cancer diagnosis five days before Christmas in 2007, she used her research, communication, and comedy skills to navigate treatment, and wrote “Cancer for Christmas: Making the Most of a Daunting Gift” about managing medical care, and the importance of health literate self-advocacy. In addition to her ongoing work as a journalist, she’s a popular speaker and thought leader on healthcare system transformation from the ground up.

Leave a Comment