Logo: University of Southern California

A Tough Act to Follow

Actor Alan Alda shares some tips with Viterbi School engineering students on the art of public speaking

January 26, 2008 — All semblance of composure “went out the window” when Andrew Bagwell, a sophomore majoring in industrial and systems engineering, got up in front of actor Alan Alda and science reporter K.C. Cole to give a three-minute presentation on the merits of his field.
Alan Adla and Viterbi School students at the end of a great workshop.

He was nervous.  Self-conscious.   Uneasy.  And like millions of people in business and academia, he just wanted to hurry up and finish so that he could sit down. 

Two-and-a-half hours later, Bagwell and 12 other Viterbi School leadership students were confident, focused on the audience and speaking like pros.

“I was hesitant at first, but Alan Alda’s sincere desire to teach us what he knew about communication really showed through and made us all feel comfortable,” Bagwell said.  “His encouraging words made me stop thinking about how silly I might be looking and focus on getting inside another person’s head.” 

Ben Vatterott, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, had a similar experience.  

“My worst fear going into the workshop was stumbling over pre-rehearsed lines and phrases,” he said. “Throughout the seminar,
Mr. Alda emphasized that memorizing what we planned to present was never a good idea; rather, we should focus on thoroughly understanding the material and our audience – the rest would come naturally. By the end of the day, I felt I was beginning to grasp the truth of this.”

In a unique seminar of engineering and theater, led by two professional communicators, the students and their classmates learned one of the essential ingredients of effective public speaking: to focus on the audience and not on yourself.   

Alda, best known for his starring role in the hit television series “M*A*S*H,” is passionate about communicating science.  As host of the PBS series Scientific American Frontiers, he was on campus for a special Vision and Voices talk, entitled “Science, Art and Society.”  But at the suggestion of a friend, Maja Mataric, senior associate dean for research at the Viterbi School of Engineering he jumped at the chance to coach the engineering students in a variety of improvisational techniques that are used in comedy and theater.
Alda teaching in the Ming Hsieh Board Room.

The students were from all academic levels and a variety of majors. They were asked first to present brief talks about an engineering topic of their choice.  Alda and Cole, who is a professor of journalism in the USC Annenberg School for Communication, critiqued the presentations.  Then the group broke into two hours of improvisation.  The improvisational techniques were often “hilarious,” Bagwell said, and ranged from “playing invisible tug-of-war to mirroring another student, both physically and verbally.”  The goal was to teach the students to focus their attention on their teammates and not on themselves. 

Coordinated by the Engineering Writing Program and the Klein Institute for Undergraduate Engineering Life (KIUEL), the workshop was designed to build communications skills by giving students a safe environment in which they could relax and experiment creatively with public speaking. 

“We selected these students based on their potential for leadership,” said Stephen Bucher, director of the Viterbi School’s Engineering Writing Program. “They’ve all been involved in student groups, professional organizations, summer abroad programs and community service activities.” 

The workshop addressed a growing need in the engineering profession today for graduates who possess not only excellent written but oral communications skills.  Because the technical professions deal with complex societal problems, scientific discoveries at the nanoscale, and engineering solutions that often involve long, complicated processes, engineers must be able to communicate complex ideas in understandable ways or their projects will not be understood and possibly not funded. That makes the stakes high for new engineers entering the profession.  
Alex John, in the center, listens intently.  K.C. Cole is at end of table.

Alda, who shares Cole’s interest in scientific discovery, was eager to try out some of his own communications techniques on the students. 

“Boy, those kids are smart,” he said, laughing.  “And you could tell they loved what they were talking about.”

He said the process of learning to engage an audience involves presenting ideas in a fresh and vivid way. 

“The improvisation techniques created a wonderful sense of discovery for the students,” Alda said. “I was so grateful to those young people for lending themselves out to me, because this was an experiment.”

After the improvisation, the students were exhilarated, refreshed and ready to give their speeches another try, this time with only a few minutes of rehearsal time. Alda called the transformation in their speaking styles “shocking.”

“Every single one of them was elevated, there was so much true animation in the way they talked,” he said. “I heard their real voices, not the voice of someone who lectures.”

Stephen Bucher said Alda was moved by the students’ performances. Kate Baxter, director of Student Support Programs in the office of Admission and Student Affairs, called it “a huge success,” and said the students “really learned from it.”

“To me, working on technical communication with an experienced actor was an invaluable experience, and I believe most engineers in leadership positions would feel the same way,” Vatterott said. “I would highly recommend that workshops like this be offered again.  It was highly effective and certainly useful.”

Innovative programs like this have been possible thanks, in part, to the Klein Institute for Undergraduate Engineering Life (KIUEL). The institute, funded by Viterbi School alumnus Ken Klein (BSBMEE ‘82), supports programs and activities outside of the classroom that are designed to enrich the undergraduate experience at USC for engineering students.
At right, Ben Vatterott, a junior mechanical engineering major, gets some tips from Alda.

The Engineering Writing Program (EWP) also offers innovative communications courses as part of the undergraduate curriculum. EWP provides opportunities for students to work on community service-learning projects in Los Angeles and abroad. These projects involve oral and written communications, such as proposal, grant and report writing, presentations and one-on-one meetings with individual nonprofits. 

Since its inception in 1998, EWP has developed relationships with more than 90 nonprofit organizations in the Los Angeles area and overseas, and given students the opportunity to do everything from reconfiguring computer labs to designing playgrounds.  

Finding Your Real Voice

by Andrew Bagwell
Sophomore, Industrial and Systems Engineering
Viterbi School of Engineering

I’ve spent most of my academic career developing a certain level of confidence in my public speaking, but any resemblance of comfort went out the window Tuesday evening when I realized that Emmy Award-winning actor Alan Alda and celebrated science reporter K.C. Cole were in my audience.

After I was able to partially overcome my nerves and stumble through a presentation I was asked to prepare on the merits of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Alan Alda asked us all to stand up and take part in improvisational theater games, which ranged from playing invisible tug-of-war to mirroring another person, both physically and verbally.

I was hesitant at first, but Alan Alda’s sincere desire to teach us what he knew about communication really showed through and made us all feel comfortable. His encouraging words made me stop thinking about how silly I might be looking and focus on getting inside another person’s head.

After the games, we were asked to repeat our presentations with just a minute or two of preparation. Although I had to improvise quite a bit, I now considered my audience’s state of mind and spoke more from the heart. The audience, which listened politely the first time around, seemed truly engaged by what I had to say this time. In the end, Alan Alda emphasized the importance of finding our “real voices,” and, with his help, I feel I’ve begun that process.