If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? Effective Speaking Skills

If I Understood You

I’m not the best speaker.  I struggle with condensing my thoughts quickly and formulating them into coherent sentences, often tripping over my words.  Not surprisingly, though opposite of most people I know, I do better with prepared speeches, when I have the time to write, rewrite, edit, and practice what I have to say.  But, speeches don’t figure prominently in my daily life.  Other than for classes, I’ve rarely had to prepare speeches or presentations.  I don’t have effective speaking skills for daily life, and my prepared speeches aren’t all that amazing either.  So I’ve decided, I am going to spend 2018 learning how to be a better speaker.

Alan Alda’s new book, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, started with a trip to a dentist, a bit of jargon, and a cut with a scalpel. The dentist told him he was performing a surgery that Alda did not understand, and yet he allowed the dentist to make the cut because he was embarrassed that he didn’t know what the dentist was talking about. The results were disastrous.  And it could have been avoided with clear communication.

We have all been in this situation in one context or another. It’s less uncomfortable to nod while thinking, “What are they talking about??” than to stop someone and ask them to explain what they just said. Instead of giving us tips on how to overcome that (because, if we’re being honest, the solution is to stop the other person and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is/means”), this book attempts to teach us how to be better speakers, so that our audience will never have to stop us and say “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is/means.”

The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him.

Often, we assume the other person knows what we know. This is known as the Theory of Mind: you don’t have all the knowledge and experience of the person you are talking to, and they don’t have all the knowledge and experience you do. Some examples of forgetting that fact:

  • Jargon is efficient because people are condensing their years of knowledge and experience into words and phrases so they don’t have to explain the entire concept each and every time, but this means people who are not familiar with the jargon will not understand.
  • A person selling their car might subconsciously price it lower than the Blue Book value because they are aware of all the car has been through, and of the wear and tear that isn’t visible.
  • In charades, people often keep repeating the same gesture even though their teammates are not getting it, because they themselves think the gesture very obviously represents the word, and can’t understand why no one else is seeing it.

When we communicate, it is our job to make sure the other person understands what we are talking about.

We are aware of the Theory of Mind to some extent. We use different ways to express the same thought depending on who we are talking with: if you are discussing an event you went to, you will tell the story differently to your colleagues than to your spouse, to your parents than to your children, to the people who were there than to the people who were not.

So how do we communicate better?

Alan Alda is an actor, director, and writer who is active in the science community, specifically in helping scientists learn to communicate their research to non-scientists. He draws on techniques he learned as an actor that are backed/explained by scientific research.

“Life, of course, is an improvisation.”

“Yes, and…”

The key concept in improv is “Yes, and…” For players in an improv scene, what that means is, you accept any premise the other players throw out and add to it, because if you reject the premise, the scene ends. “Yes, and…” in real life means, when you are having a conversation with someone, you must listen to, understand, and accept what they are saying before you respond and add your input. Accepting doesn’t mean you change your beliefs to theirs; merely that you are able to acknowledge that they have an opinion or point of view different from yours, and further the conversation by trying to understand why your points of view differ.


Taking the time to identify what the other person is feeling will make you less impatient and more understanding. Whether you are speaking to someone one-on-one, or giving a presentation to a hundred people, trying to see things from the audience’s point of view will help you help them understand. For example, when making a presentation, instead of skimming your eyes over the crowd, make eye contact with a few specific people. By making eye contact, you can see how they are reacting to your message, and it will feel like you are talking to someone rather than to a faceless crowd.

I’m not a very empathetic person, so it’s something I need to actively work on.  Here are a few of the empathy-building techniques mentioned in the book:

  • Reading novels.  Novels, whether written in the first or third person, let you into the minds of the characters, and you are able to see the thoughts, motivations, and reasoning that leads a character to act the way they do. This one’s my favorite (for obvious reasons).
  • Watching movies with the sound off.  Picking a movie with more subtle emotions will work better than an action movie or comedy with big, obvious emotions.  I’m curious to try this one; I think it would be the most helpful of the three for me personally.
  • Meditation.  This didn’t seem obvious to me upon first reading, but it does make sense in that meditation helps you to be more accepting of the world as it is, so it naturally extends to being more accepting of other people.
Clear and vivid

It is important to get to the point right away. In business school, they stress the importance of having and perfecting an elevator pitch. The idea is, you are trying to talk to busy, high-level executives, and you need to tell them who you are, what you do, and how what you do will benefit/help them in 30 seconds, or approximately the length of an elevator ride. Having a short and succinct message gives the listener no time to lose interest.


Personal stories and emotions make things memorable, and it makes the audience care.

  • The beginning sets up the scene. What is it about? Who is taking what action?
  • The middle requires obstacles for the characters to overcome. What stands in their way? What is causing problems?
  • The ending has special importance. What is the punch line?  The resolution?  The accomplishment?

The type of emotion is important for connecting with others. You can just as easily remember happy, scary, or upsetting events. But memories with positive emotions will help bring you closer to another person than memories with negative emotions.


If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? puts into practice the concepts it espouses, by being simple and easy to read.  The tips and tricks mentioned are easy to incorporate into your life.  At the same time, it seems overly simplistic and less scientifically rigorous than I expected, as well as a bit disorganized.  (He shifts from one-on-one conversations to presentations so seamlessly that I wasn’t aware he was no longer talking about conversations until about two chapters in.  Also, I was expecting a book on communication – about half the book is focused on empathy.)  That said, it’s a good intro for anyone new to learning about empathy and communication skills.

Do you think these tips can help you develop more effective speaking skills?  How well do you think these techniques work in becoming a better speaker?  What other books would you recommend for my quest to become a better speaker?

Comments (4)

  • Lyn 1 month ago Reply

    I love this Lily. From one fellow book addict to another, well done. I can certainly relate to it all: books, speaking and finally putting all that learning into practice. Good luck on your blog and on your goals. I would love to subscribe.

    Lily 1 month ago Reply

    Thank you, Lyn!

  • Cindy Harris 1 month ago Reply

    To be a better speaker…talk about what you are passionate about. Talk about something you know a lot about…something you have spent hours researching, reading and thinking about. When you are that “speaker,” you are the expert on the topic you are speaking about. Go forth and do it! I love Alan Alda…I get my daily dose of humor watching re-runs of M.A.S.H. on television. I like it because of all the character, but especially because of Hawkeye Pierce, Alan Alda.

    Lily 1 month ago Reply

    Yes! I absolutely agree; I do my best when I’ve spent countless hours learning about a topic, often forgetting to be nervous! It’s just all the other occasions where I struggle with speaking haha.

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