Preparing For an Interview, Part Two: Researchers (for Print and Online Media)

14 January 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo courtesy of Roger Winstead, North Carolina State University.

Scientists are often nervous about being interviewed by reporters. This is often because they are worried that reporters will misrepresent their work or make them look foolish. Human ingenuity is boundless, so there is no foolproof way to ensure that reporters will get everything right. However, there are things that scientists can do to help ensure that they communicate their work effectively, and significantly improve the odds that their work is presented accurately.

(Note: interviewing scientists is no picnic for reporters either. The previous post dealt with how reporters can prepare for science interviews. Also, this post focuses primarily on how to prepare for a phone or in-person interview with a print or online reporter. I wrote a separate post on preparing for radio and TV interviews.)

Take Your Time, Do Your Homework

If you get a call from a reporter who wants to interview you about your work, don’t rush yourself. Ask the reporter a couple questions first: Who is the reporter? Who is he/she writing for? What, specifically, do they want to know about? For example, if the reporter is calling about a specific paper, are they interested in the science for its own sake? Or are they primarily interested in potential medical/technological/whatever applications of that science? In short, know your audience.

Once you know who they are and (broadly speaking) what they want, tell them you can call them back in 10 minutes and get their phone number. Most reporters are perpetually on deadline, but if they want to talk with you they can spare you 10 minutes. This gives you time to prepare.

Use that 10 minutes to do some quick homework on the reporter and the news outlet, if you’re not already familiar with them. If a Google search turns up information that makes you nervous, trust your gut. Odds are good that a reporter for GlobalWarmingIsAHoax.com is not going to write an evenhanded article about your atmospheric chemistry paper. (And, yes, I just made up GlobalWarmingIsAHoax.com – I think.) Also, if you don’t know anything about a news outlet or reporter, ask someone about it. E.g., if your institution has a public information officer, ask them what they know. Or talk to any media-savvy colleagues or friends who you trust. You don’t have to walk into an interview blind.

Once you’ve done your homework, write down the two or three key points you’d like to make about your research – and limit each point to one or two (fairly short) sentences. This helps you organize your thoughts, and gives you a fallback that you can use during the interview (more on this later). Once you’ve got your key points written down, call them back.

Help Them Get It Right

Reporters usually contact a researcher because reporters want help understanding the researcher’s work. This means the researcher will have to explain his/her work to a non-expert. This is when researchers often get nervous. But it’s important to note that the reporter does not want to get it wrong. Reporters HATE getting facts wrong. They want to get it right. And you can help them.

Be prepared. And help reporters get it right. (Photo: holtenl05/stock.xchng)

An obvious point: don’t use words the reporter can’t understand. Scientists are often so accustomed to speaking the jargon of their particular disciplines that it is sometimes difficult to speak in language that is accessible to non-experts. Please try anyway. And remember, some words have different meanings in different contexts. “Significant” means one thing in a statistical context, and another in conversational use. Be clear about what you mean.

But to significantly improve the reporter’s odds of getting the story right, take steps to make sure he/she understands you.

Here’s how: after explaining a salient point or a particularly complex issue, say this: “I want to make sure I’m doing a good job of explaining this. Could you please paraphrase that last part back to me?”

English is a tricky language, and it is difficult to paraphrase something correctly if you don’t understand it. By getting the reporter to paraphrase what you told them, you can often spot a misunderstanding and address it. When I was a reporter, I used to paraphrase big chunks of an interview back to whoever I was interviewing. I caught a lot of mistakes this way – which means those mistakes never made it into my stories. Since most reporters do not do this, you can take the lead and ask them to do it for you.

Equally important is that by saying “I want to make sure I’m doing a good job,” you are putting the onus on yourself and making the reporter feel magnanimous. This keeps the interview from becoming confrontational, which is probably what would happen if you said “I want to make sure you’re not a moron who is going to screw this up.”

How to Answer “Stupid” Questions

Sometimes reporters ask questions that don’t make any sense. This is usually because they don’t fully understand the material. When you get one of these questions, you can steer things back on course yourself. You could take the time to explain why that question isn’t relevant to the work. If you have the time, this is the way to go. If you don't have the time, you could, for example, say something like: “I think the important thing about this research is…” and then insert one of those “key points” you wrote down earlier.

This second technique, where you ignore the actual question and answer the question you wish the reporter had asked is called “blocking and bridging.” Done well, it’s an effective way of conveying the information that is really important. Done poorly, it will make you sound like Sarah Palin.

The best approach might be to simply say, “Look, let me cut to the chase. Here are the things that I think are really important here.” And then lay it out.

Also, there are some questions that you shouldn’t answer at all. Almost all (if not all) hypothetical questions aren’t worth answering. Wild speculation can get you into trouble.

You Are In Charge

Lastly, remember that you are in charge. You can hang up the phone or cut off the interview at any time. The reporter contacted you because, presumably, you have knowledge that they want. That gives you some control of the process. Be patient. Be understanding. And try to help the reporter understand your work. Most reporters will appreciate this because they are reasonable, patient and want to do a good job. But all reporters are human, and some humans are assholes. If you run into one of these, don’t be bullied into answering questions you don’t want to answer.


9 Responses to “Preparing For an Interview, Part Two: Researchers (for Print and Online Media)”

  1. Atif Kukaswadia Reply | Permalink

    A great post and definitely one that anyone interviewing should read. The point about having 2-3 key points you want to discuss is definitely one to have written down, as well as focusing on the reasons why your research matters and why it's relevant - most reporters/audiences don't care about the nuts and bolts of what you did, which is something I discussed in my TEDx talk (http://youtu.be/jUX16wqbiME).

    I would definitely recommend getting in touch with your institutions media/PR/marketing department. Not only will they be able to coach you in person (mock interview, mock questions etc), they will also be able to help screen out organizations that might be more ... unsavoury in their tactics.

    Great job :)

  2. Rose Hoban Reply | Permalink

    I really wish profs would read this, especially the part about reporters really wanting to get it right. We do.

    I love the asking reporters to paraphrase the material back, that's a great idea. Esp because many reporters aren't stupid, but may not understand your field of study. Reporters can be under a lot of pressure - editors want something NOW, they want something that's "cool" or "startling" or "important" and so reporters get pulled from a beat they know, say education, to report on science. It's a shame, but true, so help them out by helping them get it right!

  3. Stephanie Pappas Reply | Permalink

    This is great advice. I love it when scientists have taken the time to glance at our outlet or Googled my articles - it often helps them understand how to gear the interview. The paraphrasing advice is great, too. I sometimes have people ask something along the lines of "What are you taking from this?" or "How are you going to use this?" which I think fulfills the same goal and might not feel as confrontational to say.

    Also really glad you addressed the "stupid question" issue. Be nice to reporters who ask stupid questions - sometimes we know they're stupid! I ask really obvious stuff all the time just to have a quote I can use to head off cynic/denier/conspiracy theorist-type commenters.

    What do you think of advising scientists to ask reporters their own background in the topic at hand, Matt? I get this sometimes, and though I always tell them to talk to me like I'm a novice, it can sometimes help save time if we both know that I know about the background of the field or common controversies or whatever.

  4. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Stephanie -- I think it is completely reasonable for a scientist to ask the reporter what their background is in a given field. But there are three risks, as I see it:
    1). Some reporters may become defensive if they have to say, "Um, no background." (Though they shouldn't feel that way.)
    2). Some scientists may be dismissive if the reporter says "Um, no background." (Though they shouldn't feel this way either.)
    3). The reporter DOES have some background in, say, biochemistry, and tells the researcher that. The risk here is that the researcher then assumes that the reporter has more familiarity than is actually the case -- which is no big deal, as long as the reporter is willing to get the researcher to back up and start over. :)

  5. Stephanie Pappas Reply | Permalink

    Very true. In the case of #3, I guess it really goes back to heeding the paraphrasing advice, even if the reporter has some background.

  6. Ian Le Guillou Reply | Permalink

    Regardless of your background, as the interviewer, it's still worth trying to get scientists to talk to you like you're an idiot - it makes much easier to get direct quotes that are intelligible to your readers. Otherwise, scientists tend to gloss over complicated aspects with phrases like "As I'm sure you know..."

  7. [BLOCKED BY STBV] Preparing For an Interview, Part Three: Researchers (for TV and Radio) › Communication Breakdown Reply | Permalink

    […] It’s also worth noting that many institutions offer media training. If your institution is one of them, take advantage of it. Reading a blog post is no substitute for actually standing in front of a camera. But reading a blog post (or, at least, reading this blog post) is definitely better than nothing, so here are some tips on how to communicate effectively when being interviewed for broadcast media. (Note: you may also want to read my previous post on preparing for interviews with print and online media.) […]

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