Alan Alda got a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild last week, and his speech afterward was something else.
Alda has had a 60-year career on both the big screen and television, starring most famously as Capt. Hawkeye Pierce in the television show M*A*S*H (and directing the series finale, which held the record for most-watched TV show in history for years afterward).
More recently, he helped create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in 2009, and he's the host of a top-rated podcast, Clear+Vivid with Alan Alda. His next episode, dropping Tuesday, involves him reuniting with his M*A*S*H costars.
I interviewed Alda last week, the day after his SAG award speech (which happened to be his 83rd birthday), to talk about learning to communicate with people more effectively.
Here are excerpts from our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Bill Murphy Jr.: This is great. I'm a big fan. I appreciate you spending your birthday talking with me. That's very nice of you.
Alan Alda: Well I'm not gonna spend my whole birthday talking with you.
Bill Murphy Jr.: I had no idea you were getting a Lifetime Achievement Award until last night when I happened to be watching the SAG awards.
Alan Alda: Oh, that's funny, that's great. Well, that's not good. That doesn't say much for their press.
Bill Murphy Jr.: I write for Inc., as I imagine you're talking with a lot of writers.
Alan Alda: It's interesting. There's more of a connection than you might realize between the theme of your publication and the theme of the podcast, which is relating and communicating.
Bill Murphy Jr.: There's a story I've heard about how you and the other actors on M*A*S*H would spend your time between takes.
Alan Alda: We had this kind of special ritual of sitting in a circle and just making one another laugh, for sometimes hours at a time, while we were waiting for the next shot. And that's an unusual thing for actors to do. They usually go over their lines together and then disappear.
And we kept this contact going, and it turned out that it became for me the most important way to prepare for acting, but it also contributed to the change in my relations with other people.
Bill Murphy Jr.: Is it about getting into a mood, or is it about building the relationships?
Alan Alda: It's not just building relationship, it's the actual process of relating.
Most of us relate to one another in a useful but superficial way. We say what we need to get said, we hear what we need, but we're often not even looking in their eyes. And there's an enormous amount of communication that takes place just with eye contact.
Bill Murphy Jr.: Often a leader won't have an opportunity to develop a real relationship, or a speaker doesn't have a lot of time. And you as an actor, you developed a relationship with the other actors, but not with audience. How does that translate or work?
Alan Alda: I think when you're acting, especially on the stage, you're relating to the audience through your connection with the other actors. In my experience, the audience is drawn into the exchange between two actors much more effectively and more deeply if the two actors are connected in a genuine way.
If they're pretending to be connected, the audience only pretends to be interested. At an unconscious level, I think we're drawn into the reality of the connection if they're really connected.
Bill Murphy Jr.: I'm thinking about your speech last night after getting the award. Do you think about these sorts of "relating" things, when you're thinking, "What do I say at an event like that?"
Alan Alda: That award meant more to me than any award I've ever gotten, because it's from fellow actors.
You know, there's a temptation to begin with a joke or something, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, "I'm talking to people who are really going to see if I'm being authentic, if I'm saying something I care deeply about and really mean. And I'm not gonna be trivial. I'm gonna talk from the heart. I think they'll appreciate it."
Bill Murphy Jr.: I noticed in another interview, somebody talked about you working in a co-working space. Are you working next to somebody who's doing a dog-walking on-demand startup next to Alan Alda, or something like that?
Alan Alda: No, we have actual office space. We have office space and we use the conference rooms. But it's the nicest office space we've had because it's lively there, because there are a lot of startups. There are a lot of young people, and there's energy, and it's good for the people in our offices who have the boost in energy from the other people. So it's very, it's enjoyable.
Bill Murphy Jr.: What led you to think of doing a podcast?
Alan Alda: I was just having dinner with somebody, talking about getting more interest in the Alda Center for Communicating Science, and she said you oughta do a podcast. And I thought, well that's a good idea.
And it turned out to be a really happy time for me, because I love to have good conversations with people, and that's really all it is. It's not an interview in the conventional sense. It's a conversation about something that is interesting to a wide range of people, because I have a wide range of people on the show. And it has brought a lot of attention.
Bill Murphy Jr.: This week you have the M*A*S*H episode.
Alan Alda: A lot of people who want to hear this don't know how to get a podcast. It's really amazing. There's this huge audience for podcasts in the country, and a huge secondary would-be audience if they only knew how to get one.
So when I have dinner with the M*A*S*H gang at the end of the week this week, I'm gonna try to see if I can record a little video of me explaining to one of them how to get a podcast on their iPhone, because they'd probably be interested in hearing it -- since they're in it.
Bill Murphy Jr: I read the Amazon reviews of -- I'm sorry, what was the name of your book that came out maybe two years ago?
Alan Alda: "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?"
Bill Murphy Jr.: Exactly. One review said "You read a lot of these books, and it's really one point repeated over and over and over. That's the story here, but it's repeated over and over so entertainingly that I didn't mind."
Alan Alda: You know I think I saw that, and I didn't know what the person was talking about. Because I had something different to say about how it applied in different parts of our lives. It wasn't the same thing, at least it didn't seem so to me. But highly entertaining, anyway.
Bill Murphy Jr.: Got it. To wrap up, if there's one point for people to take away from what you say about communicating effectively, what is it?
Alan Alda: I get asked that a lot. I think the best I can do in one sentence is that relating is everything. When I'm able to do it, and do it well, things go much better. When I don't do it so well, my wife reminds me to read one of my own books.