What I Learned from a Pro

by Patrick on February 13, 2011

in Media, Prof. Winston's Ideas

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

A few months ago, PBS interviewed me for their program, Smartest Machine on Earth, broadcast this past week. Family and friends tell me my few seconds went ok, but having a phobia for which I have no name—fear of seeing myself speak—I couldn’t watch it myself.

If it was ok, I owe it to Dan Rather. Many years ago, he came to MIT and interviewed me for a segment on the CBS Evening News.

Before Rather showed up, my office filled up with audio, video, and makeup specialists and the rest of his entourage. The MIT news office was represented in force, along with people from the local affiliate. People fussed with microphones and lights. A gaffer taped over all the wires. All the rest were restless in anticipation. I became terrified, wondering if I could get out a complete sentence.

Eventually, Rather walked in and sat down next to me, saying something like “Well, Professor Winston, how are you today,” starting a soothing low-volume small-talk conversation unrelated to the subject of the interview.

Somehow, the low-volume put us in a bubble, and all the other stuff going on faded into the background.

Then, his voice volume went up as he asked the first real question. It was seamless. There was no time to get nervous again.

So, when Michael Bicks came around with his NOVA team, it occurred to me that I could use Rather’s technique in reverse. “Michael,” I said, “how are you today,” starting a low-volume small-talk conversation unrelated to the subject of the interview. When the first question came around, I was on a roll. I just cranked up the volume. No seam. No time to get tongue-tied.

Editor’s Update: The Boston Globe reported Feb. 15 on the MIT gathering to cheer for the machine!

Read Professor Winston’s commentary after Watson’s win: “Impressive, my dear Watson!”

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