TED, Port and Coffee Consciousness

London’s first coffee house opened in 1652, playing a key role in the development of liberal thought, insurance brokerage and newspapers.  Even now, caffeine combined with conversation has the power to shape new thinking and form new alliances. 

A meeting over coffee is how three women at the LSE – Katharine, Sara and Maria – came up with the idea of bringing together PhD students from all disciplines to talk about their research in an entertaining and inclusive way.  With the support of the LSE’s Teaching and Learning Centre, the event finally took place last week (June 17).

How else would I have found out about the idea of hedging in international affairs and the disappearing middle class, or why cloud computing is amorphous, agile and ambidextrous?  We had all been asked to come up with an eight-minute TED style presentation on our own research area and to turn up at William Goodenough House, Bloomsbury, with our memory sticks. 

TED is a new concept for me but somehow, I’d got hold of a ticket to the TED day at Westminster the week before.  What it comes down to is that your message will come over more strongly and memorably if you make it personal, surprising and keep actual facts to a minimum.  Pretty obvious, and surely not a concept just limited to TED. 

By the way, can I give a plug here to the famous Ken – Ken Garland, described by Wikipedia as “notable as a British graphic designer, author and game designer”, a speaker who is in demand all over the world, mainly because he is utterly genuine, speaks from the heart and refuses to waste a moment of the audience’s time.  See www.kengarland.co.uk if you want to know more.  Yes, he’s my father but when I asked him, he’d never heard of TED.

Back to William Goodenough House, and 20 or so LSE PhD students presenting their work and discussing it over snacks and drinks, then listening to a port talk from a seasoned academic in the Great Hall.  I’m getting on a bit as I am a very mature student, fresh from xx years on the PR frontline, but I’ve never been entertained in a Hall or heard of such a thing as a port talk. 

It’s all part of the civilized Medievalist ideal of Oxford and Cambridge, where you are looked after, nurtured even, and take the time to share intellectual ideas with fellow scholars.  A port talk is a talk followed by a glass of port.  It was late and I was on my bike so I declined but there was something moving about the untouched neat rows of port in glasses on the sideboard as I left.  A disappearing world.  Very different anyway from the struggle to get a workstation in the LSE library.

When it came down to it, the day at William Goodenough House was a special day.  As researchers, we all relaxed and enjoyed being with each other, and took part in discussions about things we know little about, but can make an intellectual contribution towards.  If you get the chance to do something like this, take it. 

If there is any doubt as to whether social sciences matter in real life, here are some of the questions raised during the day. Where and why is green innovation taking place?  What influences decisions by multi-nationals about where to locate?  Can the web help artists to overcome social disadvantage?  How can we establish causality in social science?  To what extent do officials in the European Commission apply real learning to policy?

My area of research is political communications, and thanks to the freedom of TED, I was able to include a fanciful notion that often occurs to me when I watch BBC Parliament, that political discourse is our version of primate grooming.  It was the excuse I needed to show this photo.

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