Lessons from Richard Attenborough

AttenboroughIt was a grey, nondescript September afternoon in London, when we sat down with recording ‘machines’, and microphones, all agog for our victim to walk in.

The victim was Richard Attenborough, someone well known to our class of foreign students at the BBC (whose motto, most appropriately, was/is “Nations shall speak unto Nation“). It was just seven years since Gandhi had been released.

We had practiced the ins and outs of radio production, from managing the heavy tape machine (about as heavy as a small microwave), to splicing, mixing sound effects etc. None of this would have mattered if we didn’t get our interview right. We would have just five minutes of face time.

Mr. Attenborough – I doubt we addressed him as ‘Sir’ Richard– was  extremely gracious, and disarming. This was not what our trainers had prepped us for: the evasive spokespeople, the rude celebrities, and those who intimidate you etc.

What I recall most were two things. Mr. Attenborough patiently listened to my question (about the making of the Gandhi), at times tilting his head to figure out my accent.  Speaking of which, there were no shortage of versions of English and thick accents in that room at the Capital Radio studios, London that day. Before and after me were budding radio hosts from the Seychelles, Malta, Lesotho, and Fiji.

The other thing was how he punctuated each idea with his sweeping arm movements, barely grazing, but totally ignoring the microphone. This is what interviews are supposed to be structured around – conversations, not hardware.He made that easy for us.

Long after the spool tapes gave way to tiny, and barely digital recording devices, it’s still the conversations that matter.

Unrehearsed Conversations, often most poignant

I just got off a Google Hangout with a group of dynamic new media folk, who interviewed me about Chat Republic.

It’s odd, and so appropriate to have these well moderated chats about a book that makes a big case for  inviting the unscripted, un-fettered conversations.  We had to pause  whenever we ran into a glitch – technical issue, human error etc — but as the moderator, Adnan, told me at the end, he leaves the glitches and silly mistakes.

I try to respond to the famous questions about ‘over use’ or ‘dangers’ of new media by saying that this thing called social media is not one thing, with a handbook. To expect it to have a set of rules is like expecting there to be a set of rules for how to use the telephone or how to speak to your neighbor.

There’s a good column in the New York Times today on the downside of email, and how in interrupting us all day, it interferes with thinking time. It ends with a line that echoes something I touched on a few days ago, when speaking of Content Curation and TMI.

“And let’s never forget the value of face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, communication. An actual un-rehearsed conversation — requiring sustained attention and spontaneous reactions — may be old-fashioned, but it just might turn up something new.”


In a time when we could bypass human interaction with a messaging device, an app, or a process, let’s not forget that it’s the spontaneity of being ‘social’ that makes it such good ‘media.’

If nobody’s listening, why are you talking?

I just wrote a column that comes down hard on a practice many of us succumb to: Continuous Partial Attention.

We shouldn’t be surprised that, even with so many digital channels at our service,  with so many ways to communicate, few appear to be paying attention. It is an odd –but wholly appropriate– topic to take on in the few weeks before I launch a book that talks of the power of conversations.

I’m not in the news business, but I do follow some journalists very closely. So here’s a National Public Radio journo, with some great advice. he speaks of how storytellers could be paying more attention to their craft in relation to their audience’s ability to listen and remember the point of the story.

Will tablets and smart phones kill conversations?

A few weeks back, I passed a sad tableau of an Asian family: a dad and two sons waiting for Mum outside a Chinese grocery store. All three of them were silently thumbing away on their iPhones. In cars, in waiting rooms, the tablet and the smart phone has become the new baby sitter.

Over the past five years, having reported social media’s many benefits I often have to step back and wonder about what it means to be too much digital.

We have become so used to being ignored while having a conversation with someone with a Blackberry that we sometimes take it for granted.

It’s not just an etiquette problem as some have alerted us to in the past few years. It’s a social problem that will have deeper ramifications –too much ‘media’ perhaps – as we marvel at how connected we are.

It generates caricatures such as this and this.

  • Smart phones don’t automatically make us smarter. (Perfectly captured in that Geico commercial that poses that rhetorical question.)
  • Likewise one more screen in the home won’t make us better informed. While we do see attempts to engage students better using tablets, social media and other digital platforms, parents and educators need to add some caveats. Teaching children media literacy would be a start.

There is a connection between learning to have ‘conversations’ and learning how to learn by deconstructing information presented –a.k.a. discourse analysis. I am planning to connect my Robotics class with a class in Thailand, soon, and have given much thought to the balance of a traditional class with a digital experience where students will talk to each other with and without digital devices. More on this later.

I will leave you with two great pieces :

Enjoy! And do send me your thoughts, comments.