Ronald Reagan may have been the Great Communicator, but Ted Habte-Gabr is obsessed with conversation.
Habte-Gabr produces Live Talk Los Angeles, a series of events that pair interesting names — often of the literary world — for sit-down interviews in front of hundreds of people. His first event featured acclaimed novelist Jane Smiley interviewing Habte-Gabr's friend, a columnist and guy who “writes booger jokes,” Dave Barry. He's since had Christopher and Anne Rice, Harry Belafonte and Tim Robbins and, perhaps his biggest attention-grabber, Tina Fey and Steve Martin. (The also-successful Live Talks Business Forums have included Whole Foods' John Mackey with Mandalay Entertainment's Peter Guber and Chris Anderson, then Wired's editor-in-chief).
LTLA turns three today, so in honor of that, Habte-Gabr and the L.A. Weekly had a conversation of our own — albeit a more intimate one at a Larchmont-area coffee shop. We recorded some bits of it to share with you as well.
There is a fee to attend these events, but you stream edited videos of them for free on your website. Why did you decide to record everything?
I'm nuts and obsessed about audiences. My last real job before doing this was working in the online learning space. For the three years when I was in that space, we were looking at what the audience looks like from beyond the confines of four walls. That's just been a thing for me. I go to bed thinking about it, I wake up thinking about it and I'm just curious who would watch these videos.
I think how an author reaches his or her audience is becoming very different and I have to do more interesting, compelling things to get people to come to Live Talk.
[These things have included marketing his product on energy bars and an upcoming series that will pair lesser-known authors with more established names. For those who'd rather listen than watch, Habte-Gabr promises that the Live Talks will soon be available via Podcast.]
You were born in Ethiopia before emigrating to Iowa — two very different audiences. What do you think makes a good public speaker?
My notion of public speaking when I lived in Ethiopia was it was the one time you'd see television on during the day and they'd do these big political rallies and it was long, oratory talks. I'm talking, two- to three-hour-long talks.
I immigrated to Iowa … in the two to three years leading up to the 1988 presidential campaign, where a lot of people who remotely thought they had a chance at presidential timber came to Iowa to give a speech. You'd hear people giving a speech and great oratory politics is about selling ideas and convincing voters and convincing donors.
I like a conversation … because it's way more spontaneous. You can make an event by pairing somebody with somebody interesting. We're doing two events with Burt Bacharach. On May 17, we're having his ex-wife Carole Bayer Sager interview him.
How do you decide on who makes a good pairing?
You have to be willing to take risks. It helps to have connections. You have to be open to ideas. I can't assume that I know everything. You have to have the willingness to pick up the phone and pick your brain.
We had [retired Laker] John Salley and [sportswriter] Frank Deford — I got more emails and people coming up to me … saying you have to bring John Salley back. He got Frank to tell stories. The best of these events is when a great story is told and the way it's told.
[They are bringing Salley back. He'll interview former coach Phil Jackson in June. “A lot of people can ask Phil Jackson good questions. But this guy was in the locker room,” says Habte-Gabr.]
Are there certain Live Talks where you've learned something?
Every one of them is informative, but what I've learned the most is that every assumption I've ever had about an audience is wrong. I did an event with [Ethiopian-born chef] Marcus Samuelsson and really the only reason I did it is because I thought, “Hey, he's my brother” and I remember thinking I'm crazy. I don't have a food audience. But the real thing is that I don't know I have a food audience.
These talks usually end with questions from the audience and some of those questions are a little out there. How do you regulate audience questions?
I would never do an event without the audience and the beauty of not live streaming it is if it's a bad question or if it ruined the flow, it ends on the cutting room floor.
If you're going to raise your hand and ask the shameless question, you're probably going to feel embarrassed. And there are people who are beyond that. It's fine if it happens … what's worse is when it just rocks the whole energy of the evening. If it's just on the wrong foot … Sometimes when I'm walking around with the microphone, I will deliberately not choose somebody because I can sense it must be more about asking the question than actually wanting to hear the answer.
How much coaching do you give the interviewer?
I try to give them real simple guidelines. In some cases when there's a personal connection and a guest, I'd like them to do the introduction because they can personalize it. I really tell them to not think of it as an interview; think of it as a conversation with three or four hundred people eavesdropping on it. If you go into it as an interview and you have 20 great questions, they may be 20 great questions but that's not going to be a great conversation.
These evenings, I like to describe them as walking into a room that has four or five doors that lead to other rooms. Some of those doors are latched, some of those doors are ajar with lights on behind them, some of those doors are wide open and you can go through those doors and you can go into those rooms to get to the other rooms that are latched.
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