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"Listening for Surprises" by Katherine Kwong

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

My “impromptu moments” are experiences where the stakes are high, preparation is limited, and I am simultaneously excited and anxious. Interviewing poet and teacher Billy Collins on the book Robinson Crusoe was one such impromptu moment. You can’t predict these moments, but you can be prepared for them.


As a Stoa competitor from 2009-2013, I spoke through many rounds of limited preparation events, Lincoln Douglas debates, and Platform speeches. These events cultivate research skills and the ability to think on one’s feet; the latter an invaluable life skill. My time in Stoa prepared me for the surprises and rich work in a creative field like podcasting by cultivating the skills of listening, discerning, and dialoguing.


This process of listening well started with podcast internships and eventually culminated in an audio fellowship program in New York City. These experiences emphasized listening as an act of care for the interviewee. I found this emphasis everywhere in the industry. Conversations suffer if active listening is not present. The repeated instruction on this point made me wonder, “How could our conversations change if our first objective is care for the other person before our need for the right response?” I remember from Lincoln Douglas debate how rigorous cross-examinations were and how thrilling an admission of faulty logic was! But, then, I wondered if that same questioning skill could be converted into listening better to another person’s interpretation of a book or an idea.


Because of the fellowship program, I now host and produce my own podcast! This Book That Book is a narrative interview podcast discussing formative books we loved as kids. I hope my care for my guests injects a warmth and winsomeness to the interviews. The book choices are not always my favorite. Yet, it is often those books that yield the greatest surprises on tape.


During my interview on Robinson Crusoe, Collins spoke openly about the significance of Robinson Crusoe’s relationship to Friday, a reformed cannibal whom Crusoe rescues. I asked Collins to say more about the significance of it, not knowing how he would respond. Collins replied that these two characters exemplify a gift of friendship after a long isolation. Because I listened, and remained caring about Collin’s insights on the story, I might never have been surprised with this interpretation of the book.


Texts are full of surprises. Alumni and current competitors are familiar with Mars Hill Impromptu, which involves crafting a speech combining analysis of popular culture with application of faith. The event provides opportunities in discerning the culture we live in and engaging their surprises with curiosity. For example, I am editing an upcoming interview about The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. My interviewee talks at length about how the book helped her cement her Latina identity. In my response, I share how we all desire to “feel and be made whole.” Discerning this truth helped my interviewee feel comfortable enough to share intimately how comforting the story and its character were. When I uncover universal truths about the human condition through my interviews, it helps me understand both a book and a person in a new way.


Understanding someone else’s worldview is a key tenant of Mars Hill Impromptu. Seeking the elements of another’s worldview inevitably creates a dialogue. For me, I am always questioning when I enjoy other podcasts. Questions like, “What’s the main worldview here?” and “How is it expressed?” and “What perspective am I missing?” and “Why do I enjoy this?” play in my head. These questions apply to a myriad of media. As you combine these questions with curiosity and care, you will find that they go a long way in understanding something you might have otherwise disregarded. I love to share the episodes that encourage me towards joy and hope. The foundation I built in Stoa has only encouraged me in creating a show that builds on these themes.


No matter how much we prepare, surprises and uncertainty are part of life. They are both exhilarating and nerve-wracking. I could not have anticipated interviewing a poet laureate. Wherever you are now, consider your own impromptu moments. There is wonder and potential if we approach life as listeners who care and discern well in the moment. Surprises yield curious results, so dialogue with them! A well-placed “tell me more” is an opportunity to understand another’s person’s story. You have what you need for those moments – listen and you will be glad you found them.


Katherine Kwong is an audio-maker based in Southern California. After interning with both On Being Studios and The Moth Radio Hour, she attended the Stonybrook Audio Podcast Fellowship ’20 and turned a small idea about children’s books and friendship into This Book That Book. She is an enthusiastic customer experience representative for Warby Parker and uses the rest of her time to produce her show, read more Children’s books and watercolor. This Book That Book is her first podcast. You can find out more about the show at thisbookthatbook.org or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also follow the show for updates on Instagram @thisbookthatbookpodcast

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