[The podcast started with them talking about how Alda had been reading Scientific American and other popular science magazines cover to cover for 50 years, that Alda came from what is now called a New Age family background, but that his years of reading scientific articles had led him to a skeptical, pro-science viewpoint]
SciAm: Speaking of doors opening, how did you wind up hosting "Scientiific American Frontiers" all those  years?"
Alda: I got a letter from the producers asking me if I was interested in hosting the show. And I .. my guess was that what they really wanted me to do was to come on camera at the beginning and say "Welcome to the show!" and then to get off camera and read a narration, and I really wasn't interested in that. But I said to them "if you're interested, what really interests me is if I can talk to the scientists, if I can interview them." Because then I knew that I'd be spending the whole day, not just on camera but the rest of the day, having a chance to talk with them about their work, and that really interested me a lot. And they took a big chance doing that, because they didn't know how it would work out. I wasn't a professional interviewer. I was just curious.
But what was really good, and none of us expected, was that what would happen was that it would become an improvisation where I would use a couple of skills I have as an actor, one of which is to listen, and I would get to exercise my curiosity. And that became a dynamic interaction between me and the scientists, where they really had to talk to me and explain to me what they did so that I understood it. I wasn't there to just lob questions to them so that they could just make a lecture to the camera about what they did. They actually had to make me understand. And that changed their voice, it changed their face. It engaged them, and made them more engaging. And we just stumbled into that because I was curious in the first place, and wanted to be able to talk with them. But it was the conversation that changed them.
SciAm: Well, you've just been teaching scientists some of these improvisational acting techniques in an effort to get them to communicate better.
Alda: I have. It's kind of an experiment that I've been doing. Partly because I realized how much it benefited most of the scientists to get engaged in a conversation and not to go into lecture mode. It made them so much more appealing and easier to understand, their work easier to understand. So I thought, I benefited in my life as an actor from studying improvisation and everybody I know who has improvised for a certain period of time has become more charismatic. Every actor. So I thought, well, experiment with this. I had a friend, a teacher who taught at USC and I was gonna be at USC one day so I said "why don't you ask 20 engineering students to come in, prepared to talk about their work for about 2 minutes?"
SciAm: You picked engineering students because you figured they'd be the most obtuse?
Alda: Not necessarily! I just knew that they had an engineering school there. So, yeah, sure, get me in trouble with engineers now! So they came in and they talked about their work, each for about two minutes. And then we did about 3 hours of improvising games. Which are very rigorous. They're not just about getting up and making things up. They go by strict rules which you have to follow. At the end, I asked them to get up again and talk for a minute or so about their work. And it was amazing, the difference. There was a real difference; they were much more conversational, they made eye contact, their language was a little more personal. I did ask them to be more personal, so it wasn't just a result of the improvising. But they were more engaged. So now, I've done it a couple of other places - just did a 6-week workshop at Stonybrook, and we had physicists and biologists, so I also did it at Brookhaven Research Center. And I've been videotaping these sessions, because I don't want to waste anybody's time, including my own. If it's going to work, I want to have some record that it's working, and how it worked, and why it worked. And most importantly, to what extent is there carry-over. I mean, they may get better after one or two sessions. And maybe because they're jumping around - they're getting physically energized. Or maybe the improvising does, over a period of time, make them more available to themselves and to the people they're talking to. So we're going to do more of this, and we'll see if it has a lasting effect.
(This is a transcription I made 1/20/10 - the SciAm podcast is available via iTunes Music Store for free)