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Home » The Art of Conversation » The Art of Conversation – Serendipity

The Art of Conversation – Serendipity

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At Ideas Roadshow, I tell people incessantly, we don’t do “interviews”, we do “conversations”. But what does that mean, exactly?  Just some clever promo-speak? An unwarranted presumption of equality? Not at all. It is, in fact, simply an accurate description of what is going on.

Interviews involve two people engaged in well-established roles: the interviewer and the interviewee. Often the interviewer is a journalist who rightly sees her role as that of the hard-nosed independent arbiter, keeping the interviewee honest and summarily bringing him up short when he descends to the level of propaganda or false statements. It is a dynamic we are all familiar with, particularly in a political setting: a head of state sits down with a top journalist and is asked tough questions about his record: Has he fulfilled his election promises? What does he think about his worryingly low poll numbers? What mistakes has he made?

In such a setting, if an interviewee has easily coasted through the process without seeming at all perturbed, we naturally feel that the interviewer has let down the side and not served the public interest well. These sorts of exchanges are supposed to be at least occasionally tense: the politician is playing defence while the journalist seeks to pare through the patter to unveil the core truths. Think “60 Minutes” or “Frost/Nixon”.

There are other sorts of interviews, too – like when a journalist thrusts his mic in front of a newly-crowned Oscar winner, Wimbledon champion or Nobel Laureate. These, too, have their own dynamic, but they’re typically much softer, often deliberately sycophantic. Here, the journalist is simply on hand to record the inevitable deluge of standard clichés by his happy subject who is basking in the warm glow of her recent accomplishment: “I’m so grateful for the Academy to have selected me among so many other remarkably worthy nominees,” “I just took it one point at a time,” “So many people in my lab made essential contributions to this result.” These interviews are not about gaining a different perspective or furthering understanding, but rather focused on the human interest of the newsmaker, enabling us to vicariously share in the joy and excitement of the hero of the moment. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – it’s an important way of making us feel connected in an increasingly fragmented world – but it’s different.

When I sit down to talk in front of the cameras with a neuroscientist or historian or anthropologist, however, it’s quite another dynamic altogether. I’m not out to probe their integrity or determine whether or not they’ve lived up to their promises. I’m not seeking them out because they’ve recently won an award. I just want to learn stuff; get a deeper sense of what they’re doing and why.

It starts – always – with curiosity. Why has this person done what she’s done, and how? What are her fears and desires? What is left to do? What are the key mysteries that she’s trying to unravel?

It’s not, actually, very complicated.

One of the most gratifying things about this gig is not simply that it gives me a chance to meet a wide variety of fascinating people, providing me with abundant evidence that there are far more stimulating, dedicated, interesting people out there than we might routinely suspect.

All too often there’s a subtle split between those who conduct research and those who communicate it to the public. There’s nothing wrong with academic popularizers, of course, but it does sometimes mean that the non-specialist doesn’t get as many opportunities to hear from a broad spectrum of those in the trenches who would rather spend their time actually doing research than talking about it.

I pick them because they are accomplished, penetrating sorts – they’ve developed shrewd, original insights, or conducted innovative research. Some have won famous awards like Nobel Prizes or MacArthur Fellowships. Some have been enthusiastically recommended by their peers. And some I’ve just discovered by falling upon one of their books in a bookstore.

We talk, then, about their work. Since they’re the experts, my job is to try to penetrate their world in a way that any other non-expert can understand. So I ask questions. I don’t know the answers ahead of time, of course – usually, in fact, I don’t even know the questions. Conversations are like that. What I ask people is naturally linked to what they’re telling me.

For me, the most interesting part happens when I discover something I never expected. Which, fortunately, happens all the time.

Sometimes it’s before I go into the conversation, when I’m doing background research.

Before reading Stephen Hinshaw’s book on ADHD, for example (The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance) I was, for some reason, an unabashed skeptic: convinced that this so-called condition was simply another example of our over-hyped, over-medicated society. It didn’t take me long to recognize that I was completely wrong.


Susan Wolf in conversation with Howard

Meeting Stefan Collini spurred me on to discovering what C.P. Snow had actually said about “The Two Cultures” all those years ago; Susan Wolf’s Meaning in Life and Why It Matters exposed me to Aristotle’s endoxic method and its contemporary relevance; Jennifer Groh’s Making Space: How the Brain Knows Where Things Are taught me how the brain recognizes where sounds come from; while Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire confronted me with many examples of hugely influential Asian intellectuals whom I had, embarrassingly, never heard of.

Sometimes, the unexpected happens in real time – on camera. Teo Ruiz intriguingly disclosed his involvement in an undercover post-Bay of Pigs counter-revolutionary force designed to infiltrate Cuba, Richard Janko relayed his discovery of religious fundamentalism in Periclean Athens, Nita Farahany shocked me with the extent of the “black box” of plea bargaining in the American justice system, and Kalanit Grill- Spector showed me a breathtaking video of an epileptic patient describing how he saw someone’s face suddenly “melt” when a particular area of his brain was stimulated.

Occasionally, even entire conversations magically happen serendipitously. Finding myself in Los Angeles with a suddenly open few days after a cancellation, I stumbled  upon a book by UCLA neuroscientist Alcino Silva in a nearby bookstore and soon found myself chatting with him in his office. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating and inspirational conversations I have ever had. Which is saying something.

Earlier on the same trip, I had sought out renowned psychologist Stephen Kosslyn in downtown San Francisco, where Stephen had recently moved on from Stanford (after decades at Harvard) to become founding Dean of something called Minerva Project, which I had never heard of. During our conversation, it became very evident to me that Minerva wasn’t just another academic gig for Stephen – it was nothing less than a golden opportunity for him to implement a lifetime’s work of research on how people learn. I was so intrigued that, with Stephen’s help, I soon found myself talking to Minerva’s charismatic CEO Ben Nelson, a successful tech entrepreneur who had long dreamed of revolutionizing academic pedagogy and finally found himself in a situation to do something about it. I hadn’t planned on doing an Ideas Roadshow issue on a new university. But I was very glad that I did.

Of course, however much fun it is, it’s not just about having a good time talking to interesting people. Once the conversation is finished, much work has to go into carefully packaging both videos and eBooks so that specific insights can be appropriately highlighted and communicated in the most user-friendly way. Some conversations naturally never see the light of day, while those that do are often in a much different final form than first envisioned.

But the key point is that there are vast numbers of experts around us who are anxious to share with us their captivating and often quite surprising insights. All we have to do is ask them.


Multimedia resources featuring all experts mentioned above are part of our award-winning database called Ideas Roadshow. Institutional subscriptions to tailor-made resources for different users are offered through our Academic, School and Public Library portals (please contact for more information).


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