Art of Conversation: Skilled Discourse Still at Heart of Success in Tech-Savvy World

After joining us April 16 and 17 for The Art of Conversation, a series of workshops and Evening Talk geared at sharing tips to expertly and confidently portray science and ideas, the event speakers had some words of wisdom to leave behind.

WID Distinguished Scholar and CBS Travel Editor Peter Greenberg, Senior Medical Contributor Dr. Jennifer Ashton and Host of CBS 48 Hours Maureen Maher reflected on their experiences partaking in the event and why conversation is more important than ever.

We launched a colloquy (face-to-face, of course), with the talented group.

How has participating in The Art of Conversation changed your view about communicating ideas across disciplines?

Maureen Maher:

Well for me it’s challenging because it’s probably the first time I’ve sat with students whose focus is something so different than what I am usually talking about. So I kind of had to go back to the basics of what I do as a journalist to impart upon them what a journalist is looking for… I had to find a way to reverse roles and try to teach students, post docs and young professors “How do they give that information” [to a journalist or the public]. It was challenging, but in a good way. It made me refocus on the basics of who, what, where, when, why and how. And that’s really germane to any conversation you’re having with anybody on any subject. You’re calling an airline, you’re trying to get directions, you’re explaining something to your child, you want something from your boss, you’re having a conversation with your girlfriend.

Jennifer Ashton:

I think it’s so relevant and so important to consider Maureen’s model and paradigm because what she does is take potentially boring, factual information and makes it an incredibly compelling story. And that’s the difference, whether we’re talking about health or science or travel or murder or crime, that’s what puts our personal mark on it, and that’s what is missing in the technological age. Because if you don’t have that skillset, then you don’t need a person behind it. You can just read the words.

Photo by M. English/WID
Art of Conversation speakers (left to right), including moderator Steve Paulson and speakers Maureen Maher, Peter Greenberg and Jennifer Ashton

Peter Greenberg:

And if you don’t have that skillset, the relationship is troubled. From a male perspective, I can tell you, the four words he fears most in a relationship?

Jennifer: “We need to talk.”

Peter [laughing]:

“We need to talk.” But that’s exactly why we’re here right now, because we need to talk! And then it’s a question of how we talk and how we finesse it. And as Maureen said, the famous journalistic principles transcend everything because it’s the same principle. It’s the same principle of how you get from A to B in a conversation — to get to what you need, or what you think you need.


And for me, in medicine, as Maureen said, this is the critical foundation of medicine whether it’s clinical practice, doctor-patient relations or what I do on the air [for ABC News]. It’s the difference between just giving facts (or people doing an Internet search) and putting those facts into a story, putting those facts into context, making those facts important for that audience. And at the same time, expanding the circle of knowledge so that they leave a little bit smarter, or at least more challenged, than they were when they came in.


We’re really connecting with the audience. And that’s what the scientific community is really looking to do — they have tremendous information. And I was telling workshop participants that if for no other reason, you want the audience to be as passionate and as interested in what you’re doing so that you can get funding, so your programs can go on. So [that] we have a space agency that is actually doing something and we’re not sending our astronauts up on Russian vehicles. People in the general public use the Internet to access fragments of information. So that’s the best thing anyone in any industry can do to tap into — give them a fragment of information that’s interesting and accessible — that will spark conversation. My husband and I will be talking about something that we read in the newspaper or saw online that we normally would never have any access to without someone who has the discipline and the authority to impart it.

Just like other areas in journalism, science journalism has had to adapt to survive. Still, it’s not always on many viewers’ radars. In your opinion, why does science get left out of so much of mainstream news?


I think it’s not being covered because outlets aren’t being pitched properly. Maureen was just talking about the space program. OK, I’m going to date myself, but what was relevant to me about the space program when I was a kid? What could I get my arms around? Know what it was? Tang. Because the astronauts drank it, they developed it for the space program; it had to be really cool! Now, that sums up my excitement for the space program. After that, they never continued, they never connected the dots to anything else. They weren’t bringing people into the process. And therefore, I had no connection with it. So, while it was a nice idea to go to Mars, and it was a nice idea for the Challenger or the shuttle, you didn’t see a groundswell of emotion when they announced they were ending the program, except for guys at NASA who were about to lose their jobs.

“For a scientist, he or she could just write it down in words, but that person has to figure out a way to bring the rest of us into it. And the only way they can do that is to give us some of ‘themselves’ during the conversation.”

— Maureen Maher


It’s important to really be present for the interview. I mean, a producer can go out and do the interview for me, and then I can look at the transcripts, I can even look at the tape, but when I’m there… it’s just like when I’m covering a big case. I want to be in the courtroom for testimony of the key players as well as the verdict because I want to feel it…. that’s the flavor that comes in. For a scientist, he or she could just write it down in words, but that person has to figure out a way to bring the rest of us into it. And the only way they can do that is to give us some of “themselves” during the conversation. I have great respect for the written word, but I think that’s what the art of conversation is — it’s give and take, and if you’re right there, someone can say, “Well, what do you mean by that?”




There’s body language, there’s facial expression, there’s eye contact.


There is a huge difference between an interview and a list of questions. And I see it all the time…


By the way, the same thing happens in clinical medicine all the time. A doctor in a one-on-one patient conversation asks a question from a written list [without deviating from it]:

Doctor: “Do you smoke?”

Patient: “Yes.”

Doctor: “How much?”

Patient: “Four packs a day.”

Doctor: “Do you drink?”

No — it’s not four packs a day; move on to the next question. It should be “Four packs a day? For how long?”

How has participating in The Art of Conversation workshops differed from other opportunities?


There is a cultural disconnect that I see where people feel that they’re just not enabling or capable of having a conversation. And there’s an illusion, which I talked about at the evening event, where they think that connectivity leads to conversation. And I’m saying right now that in its current manifestation, it’s not. It’s isolating us, and it’s pushing us apart… When airfares used to go sky high, really sky high, people used to say, “Oh, we’ll do teleconferencing.” It never flew. Because it was teleconferencing for business travelers. And business travelers are salespeople. And they know that nothing beats face-to-face. Nothing beats eye contact.

Interview conducted and edited by Marianne Spoon