Listen More, Talk Less: How to Make Conversation
Five insights from writing a book.
Posted February 6, 2021
Listening to a good interview on a podcast makes conversation feel deceptively simple. People just talk, after all, right?
Three years of listening taught me otherwise.
I recently wrote a book, Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind (Harvard UP, 2020). And it could not have come into being without smell experts in neuroscience, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, perfumery, and winemaking lending me their voices.
I conducted hundreds of hours worth of interviews. Some happened over a couple of beers at the bar. Some took place at conferences or laboratory visits. Others over the phone. Or in the car. Some lasted an hour. Others continued over several days. There was no precise formula. Each interview yielded surprises because each person had a unique experience to relate.
In conducting these interviews, I discovered the importance of listening.
True, you ask questions during an interview. But interviewing also means having the ability to wait for your conversation partner to find their words. In this process, listening allows the conversation to flourish by making space for … pauses as the person takes time to find the right words. Trains of thought. Reminiscences. Unexpectedly generative tangents. As an interviewer, then, listening helps you to realize what, in fact, is the right question to ask, which might be different from the one you were prepared to ask.
Listening gives both the interviewer and interviewee the opportunity to co-create the conversation.
The idea behind doing interviews to research my book originated in a simple observation when I read about the discovery of olfactory receptors. These proteins in your nose translate the chemical information in the environment into an electrical signal for the brain to turn into sensations … and were discovered in 1991!
Hold that thought: 1991… 30 years ago now, and yet so much of the history of smell remains unacknowledged. But most of the key actors that have shaped modern olfaction research are still alive! To my mind, this offered a rare opportunity to observe, record, and analyze a field in the making. To show how the sausage is made. So, I went and bought a voice recorder and started contacting people that I was interested in talking to. Embarking on the project, I remembered what my former mentor in Vienna once told me about his own interviewing method: Listen.
Here are 5 things that I learned after talking to over 40 people between 2015 and 2018 about how listening works to produce successful, generative interviews:
1. Openings: Everyone has a story. Let them tell it.
Let the conversation build on your conversation partner’s story. This takes time and patience, but it certainly is worth it.
For my Smellosophy interviews, I opened conversations with a deceptively simple question: How did you [eminent scholar person] get into smell? This question is far from trivial. No one starts with smell as a career choice. Generally, scientists are motivated to research cures for life threatening diseases. For me, getting the background story to the question “why smell” was foundational to learning what makes that person tick, and thus how they came to make their particular contribution to the field.
2. Questions ain’t gonna ask themselves.
You can sense when an unspoken question hangs in the air. Don’t let it go unmarked. Follow your intuition. Listening shows that you care, that you are interested and engaged in what your conversation partner has to say … and why.
Know also that you don’t need to prepare a fixed list of questions and stick to them, come hell or high water. A few well-thought-out questions acting as useful conversation prompts are all you need. Because more than likely some of your list will go out the window once the conversation gets going.
Letting go of preconceived notions of what the interview should produce results in greater conversational depth and often yields unexpected informational gems. Going with the flow of the conversation will reveal to you the “unknown unknowns” of a field. It may be that you leave the conversation realizing what you’re really looking for.
Not every silence needs to be filled. Be comfortable with the absence of words. Don’t interrupt and don’t try to push an interview forward because you want to arrive somewhere. Adjust to the speed of your conversation partner. Even if — or especially when— they aren’t answering a question in a way that you expected. Because it is not about you, but them. Give your conversation partner time to reflect or recalibrate. Often, people are thinking out loud. Be supportive by actively listening.
4. Integrity and earned trust.
As an interviewer, you have the responsibility of earning and keeping the trust of your conversation partner. Your interview captures their ideas and experiences for the wider world, even posterity, to consider and use.
As the interviewer, you serve the dual role of mediating between your conversation partner and the audience (be it podcast, book, whatever the medium). Be sure to contextualize with care and accuracy. Sure, some things someone says may make for a great quote — but not if that will distort the context in which it was said. Keep the integrity of the conversation. Anything less can result in feelings of betrayal.
5. Editing stage: Re-read and re-listen.
Conversations will surprise you when you go back to them in the editing stage because you will encounter things that you did not notice at the time. Post-production was a truly revelatory experience for me as an interviewer.
Every person that I interviewed read over what I used from our conversation in the context of the book. Some even revised their statements “while more science happened” (e.g. factoring in their newly published experimental findings as my book manuscript was being prepared for publication). In recording an oral history of a dynamic field, nothing is written in stone. (Yet.) Be flexible.
Good interviewing is a long-term game, not click-bait. Keep it real.
We learn from our mistakes.
We learn from conversations with others.
Barwich, A.S. (2020). Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.