Guest blog: Saul Albert and colleagues on the “Conversational Rollercoaster” EM/CA exhibition

Conversation Analysis is hardly known as a spectator sport, yet it offers a great way to involve members of the public to see what interactional research might look like. Saul Albert organised a superb demonstration, lasting over four days, of CA analysts from Queen Mary, Loughborough, Keele, York, Oxford, and Roehampton working at a major London science exhibition. This is his report.


Saul Albert, Queen Mary University of London

New Scientist Live is one of the largest science festivals in the UK, so when they asked our Cognitive Science group at Queen Mary University to propose a hands-on public engagement activity, I challenged myself to come up with a way to ‘demo’ EM/CA.

I wrote a brief event outline inviting analysts from around the UK to help develop an EM/CA demo format. Along with some great advice and feedback from many, the CARM and Loughborough EM/CA groups offered to partner with us. Soon Charles AntakiBogdana HumaRein SkivelandLiz Stokoe and I were in Fortnum’s café in St. Pancras developing a plan.

We named the format the ‘Conversational Rollercoaster’ because we hoped people would get engrossed in some real-time talk, and would then encounter our instant analysis with the feeling of recognition and surprise you get from seeing a photo of yourself after a rollercoaster ride. Matt Jarvis and I built some custom software, the design team at A Dozen Eggs did some great signage, and we sent out an invitation to participate and a detailed event outline. This gathered a brilliant team of analysts from KeeleLoughboroughOxfordQueen MaryRoehampton, and York.

What sort of real talk?

The centrepiece of the event was  The People Speak‘s mobile Talkaoke pop-up talk-show. The Talkaoke (rhymes with karaoke) host sits in the middle of a doughnut-shaped table holding a microphone and facilitates a conversation between whoever decides to sit down and talk. This would be our ‘data source’. Here is how the table looked, with the analysts looking on, surrounded by computer screens (for analysis) in front of large overhead screens (for displaying looping clips to the public). And there’s more photos and videos on my website.


It was this team effort that made the demo work in the first hours after opening, amidst the chaos and crowds, and with Talkaoke in full flow. And things got better and better over the four days of the show.

Explaining EM/CA to the public

The basic format of the event was that the Talkaoke hosts would use a variety of methods to get passers-by to sit and talk. It turns out that lots of people like the idea of speaking into a microphone, and the hosts had no great difficulty in getting people, once seated, to air views on anything and everything. This provides a multitude of phenomena for analysis: the ways the host cajoles people to the table and their methods for joining, avoiding, or leaving – not to mention the many details of the intervening conversations.

While all that was happening, the analysts would be selecting clips, transcribing them and getting them ready for delivery back to the public via posters and screenshots. As the event developed over the four days, the analysts got more comfortable with that they were doing and began to reach out to the audience and invite them to watch the analysis unfold on their screens, and indeed to nominate  conversational practices for analysis. That was a big hit, especially with younger people.

Participants’ reflections

Here are some reflections from the team about the procedures they created, how they saw the event working, and a report by two visitors who tried it.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-25-20Elizabeth Stokoe (who gave a well attended talk at New Scientist Live) reflected on the event as a public engagement process: “I’ve done a lot of public engagement over the past few years, from radio (BBC 4 Life Scientific) and public science events (TED, Royal Institution, Wired) to wacky settings like Tatler magazine. And, of course, CARM takes CA research to large audiences directly. During this time, I’ve become more and more convinced that conversation analysts need to get out there, and get people thinking scientifically about talk. We need to dispel common myths about ‘communication’ built up over the years.

But what was wonderful about the ‘Conversational Rollercoaster’, was to have immediate engagement with members of the public who could, quite simply, start analysing and transcribing with us, right there, doing science live. The opportunity for folks to stay with us for as long as they wanted to, asking us as much as they wanted, and get engaged practically in the process of CA, was something that I really hope we will be able to reproduce in other festivals as often as possible. For me, the most effective thing was having people observe the Talkaoke – especially when they probably didn’t want to sit down and join in the chat – and encourage them to start spotting interactional things. Guiding them to spot things we know they would be able to see, but in a way that they discovered for themselves, worked wonderfully to get people interested in what is often written off as the minutiae of talk.”

Toby Harris described how this set-up enabled him to “show a scientific process happening live. A production line almost. With the Talkaoke table, not only did we have a source of conversation, but something where you could spot patterns, capture those moments, and pore over the detail.”

Screen Shot 2016-10-03 at 14.26.35.pngJohn Rae and Rein Skiveland were also enthusiastic about how visitors easily picked up on EM/CA observations.

John: “It was great fun sharing our observations about “What’s your name”? with visitors. The Conversational Rollercoaster, was an effective way of curating conversation analytic work. It supported doing and displaying CA in a way that allowed for visitors to get involved in multiple ways.

People’s curiosity was a  very gratifying aspect of the whole event,. Admittedly, this was an exhibition for people already interested in science, but nevertheless the ready interests people had in how to analyse talk suggests that this is the kind of thing that could be tried in many other venues.

Getting people directly involved

Emily Hofstetter noted how our analytical process segued into getting visitors involved: “The most successful way to engage the public was to invite them into our analysis. [We only needed a few hours] for the team to unify our observational interests, and to find points of interest and have findings to report on. Once we invited the public to see these findings with empirical examples, they were delighted.”

Charlotte Albury helped develop a process for getting visitors to try EM/CA for themselves: “I encouraged visitors to get involved in observing the table, and saying what they noticed. For example, we would watch the table, spot requests for the mic, and hypothesise which strategies would be successful…I provided materials, showed them how to note down what they saw, and offered support for the first few noticings…Once they had finished I explained what would normally happen next in terms of analysis. I then directed them towards the transcription station to find out more.”

Veronica Gonzalez Temer, who established the transcription station began showing visitors what they could do with the data they had just ‘spotted’. “[This process] allowed the audience to engage with our work, see how CA is done and become aware of language as a social phenomenon. It also gave us analysts the opportunity to prove once more that our spotting of phenomena and analysis of data can be rigorous and objective.

Sam Duffy used some meta-observations to refine the layout of the transcription station and by Sunday, was constantly busy showing visitors the finer points of transcribing with ELAN: “Sitting with my back to the people watching or waiting to take a turn at the Talkaoke table, my screen was visible…As I worked, people wandered over to see what I was doing, perhaps realising that the footage was from the set up that they were watching…I put an empty chair next to me, and a sign on the back saying “Come and talk to me about transcription”.

Performing EM/CA as a scientific practice

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-31-12After three full days, stalwart of the conversational rollercoaster Emily Hofstetter had begun to consider how we were now engaged in ‘doing being analysts’:  “What behaviours of visitors am I now glossing as ‘positive reception’? How did the analysts in days 2-4 improve on enacting ‘please interrupt me to learn more’, as compared to the analysts on day 1? Overall, we learned a lot about how to be scientists at a science festival. This is not to say that we did not transmit our findings, or increase interest in CA – I think we did, and very successfully! – but that part of that process is not really ‘simplifying’ CA for the public so much as finding ways for the public to see CA as science, and as worthwhile science.

A functional research lab, in the middle an exhibition hall

However, Alexandra Kent also emphasized that this was not just a science-performance: “What made it special for me was the fact that it did genuinely feel like we were analysing the Talkaoke interaction. We did come up with real insights about what made this unusual format for interaction different to other face-to-face multiparty conversations. So this wasn’t just a public performance or pedagogical device; it was a functional research lab.”

Jessica Robles noted how Talkaoke and the analysis worked together and showed us: “how willing people were to take seriously the idea of a “science” of looking at conversation. They were really open to the process and wanted to learn more… It was also an unexpected pleasure to see people getting so much out of the “being-the-data” part too.”

Marc Alexander pointed to how this let visitors look ‘under the hood’ of EM/CA and see how: “the inner workings are revealed in an accessible way, as opposed to a lot of the methods and approaches to doing ‘science’, such as the use of statistics.

Final thoughts – from two members of the public

While each of the participating analysts had a lot more useful feedback, especially about the analysis of Talkaoke itself (data and findings will be available soon), perhaps the most useful evaluation of the Conversational Rollercoaster was emailed to us after the event by A-level students Basimah Malik (a future medic) and Ashleigh Morgan (a future biochemist).

“As we were walking past numerous stalls at New Scientist Live we were particularly intrigued by ‘Talkaoke’. Tempted as we were to join in, we decided to watch before we threw ourselves in at the deep end. Whilst we were watching people sitting down and sharing their views at a circular table, a cognitive scientist explained the conversation analysis session that was going on. On that day they were observing how people obtained the microphone; some examples we saw included people raising a hand, making eye contact with the person in possession of the microphone and tapping the table. Not only this, but it was also interesting to see how people were unsuccessful in being passed the microphone.

An example of this was a gentleman who was very persistently attempting to get the microphone by sticking his hand out and signalling. When he failed to grasp the attention of others, he awkwardly retreated, touching his glasses and nose. We have all experienced something similar, but it was fascinating to see how individuals react to the same circumstances. We were then given the opportunity to edit clips of some examples we had spotted.  It was really interesting to see how people use their body language to communicate what they may be too apprehensive to say verbally.”

In conclusion

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-40-55In conclusion, Emily Hofstetter’s summary really highlights how Basimah and Ashleigh’s evaluation shows what this kind of demo format could mean for the bright future of EM/CA: “We have a long way to go in explaining CA and creating a CA-informed world. Our findings are exciting and wonderful, but the public (if the visitors to New Scientist Live are in any way representative) are 40-60 years behind us.

Many visitors would exclaim ‘Oh! So you take body language into account’ or ‘This sounds just like neuro-linguistic programming. I did that at a work seminar recently.’ As contrary to our efforts as these phrases sound, they were indications that the visitor in question was engaging with the material, and relating it to their frame of reference. It will not be a matter of telling people their information is out of date, and that CA has much to say to update them, but of using these commonly understood pop psychology ideas to our advantage.”

The Conversational Rollercoaster is only one way to get EM/CA ‘out there’. but it worked (after a certain amount of technological and logistical challenges) and it looks highly portable. Let’s hope we see more of this kind of thing, as part of our efforts at outreach to the public.