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Written by: Charlotte Albury (below right) DPhil student at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.



I’m a conversation analyst working in the field of primary health care, and one of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘What does conversation have to do with health?’. Conversation analysis, the science of conversation, has a huge amount to offer primary care, and many other areas, but not many people know a lot about what this method is, or what it has the potential to do.

To address this issue, a team from Queen Mary, University of London, designed a unique public engagement event to pilot at New Scientist Live at the Excel Centre. They invited conversation analysts from different institutions and research specialities to come along and run a ‘Chatlab,’ a live lab which involved the public at every stage, from data generation to analysis. 

The team wanted to use the Chatlab to demonstrate conversation analysis in action in a novel and engaging way.  The set-up for this involved a ‘talkaoke’ table, which was essentially a live chat-show. Members of the public were encouraged to take a seat around the table, and engage in discussions which were led by the host. From ‘Is vegetarianism healthy?’ to ‘Can robots die?’ (my favourite topic, initiated by one of our three-year-old visitors) these conversations drew in visitors of all ages who were eager to share their views.


There was a live video stream  running from the talkaoke table to conversation analysts in a second part of the chat lab who were ready to analyse the interactions, and encourage the public to do the same. (Picture credit: Jessica Robles,  Loughborough University). 

Rather than showing the results of ‘science’ which is often the norm for this type of engagement event, we were actually demonstrating how the science of conversation works, from data generation to analysis, in real-time.



The chatlab was also unique in that the focus was not just on showing the public what we do, but encouraging them to take part at every stage. Observers could take part in the ‘talkaoke’ and generate conversational data for analysis. Alternatively, they could have a go at spotting phenomena, collecting video clips, trying specialist transcription or analysing the data as it was generated.


 (Conversation Rollercoaster diagram: Anne Doehring, Loughborough University)

I find the science of conversation incredibly exciting, but I wasn’t sure if we could convey this to science fans when competing with virtual reality goggles, space suits and celebrity speakers. However, I was amazed by our visitors’ enthusiasm for finding out how talk can be studied, and how eagerly they joined in with analysis. The queues for the chat lab equalled those for the virtual reality goggles - if not those for Dara Ó Briain -  and it was wonderful to be able to share my enthusiasm for researching conversation in this environment.


The design of the chat lab meant that visitors were engaged in generating real data, but also in analysing this data in real time; they were not just seeing scientists do conversation analysis, but actually doing it themselves. Through observing events at the talkaoke table, we were able to discuss parallels between these routine conversations and healthcare interactions.  In this way, the chatlab made it incredibly easy to answer the question ‘What does conversation have to do with health?’ because visitors were able to observe for themselves the amazing things that we can do with talk.

Over 4 days hundreds of visitors were introduced to the science of conversation and had a go at analysis. The result was a great way to answer the question ‘What does conversation have to do with health?’, although the jury’s still out on ‘Can robots die?’.  


For more information about doing conversation analysis live here’s a short video showing what went on:  





(Picture credit: Emily Hofstetter, Loughborough University)