To be honest, I can forgive those scientists who are just plain nervous about public speaking, although I always tell them that with a little training and preparation they may actually start to enjoy interviews. I've had a few researchers laugh in my face when I suggested such a thing but after their fourth or fifth interview they often came back saying, "that was fun".
Once you hit the "that was fun" point the biggest concern is that the researchers want media communications types to get them interviews all the time, which is about the nicest concern a media communications manager can have.
But before we get to that point there are some really hard and fast rules about interviews that will give even novice interview subjects a head start and most importantly help them control interviews throughout their career.
- The rule of threes: In a recent blog post, Everything comes in threes, I talked about preparing media releases so that we have three key points in order and a snappy quote. The same is true of interviews. Never let a researcher enter an interview unless they have three, succinct points that they want to get across. Those points will be both guide and structure that will help them control the interview. I often sit with my researchers before an interview and go through the three points and then give them some insider tips on interview technique from my years editing newspapers that will help bring an interview back to the points they want to make again and again.
- Be prepared to say, "I don't know": This is incredibly powerful. Whenever an interviewer wants to take an researcher into unfamiliar territory those three magic words, "I don't know", kill a line of questioning dead. There are many ways for researchers to paraphrase this. For a scientist one of the best options is; "that is outside my area of expertise. You would probably be better asking someone who works in that field". A similar approach can be used when a researcher is being asked to comment on policy. The simple line, "I only produce the science, policymakers make decisions on how they act upon this information" or variations of it, tell the interviewer you will not stray into that territory. That last one is great for getting scientists out of situations where they feel grant money may be under threat.
- Prepare for interviews: You would imagine preparation would be a no-brainer but the evidence suggests this is not the case. As noted in an earlier post, I start every day by following the news. And every day I see interviews go off the rails when the interviewer asks an obvious question that the interview subject clearly hasn't even thought about. Weirdly enough, politicians are regular offenders in this category and they get crucified for it in subsequent media stories. It is absolutely vital to put yourself and your researcher in the interviewer's position and go through what you think the likely questions are going to be and prepare some nice short responses. If your researcher can bring those responses back to the three key points, that is even better.
- Don't let your world-leading expert wing it: The danger with the uber experts is that they think they can just rock up, put their mouth in gear and go. Too often it results in an interview that feels like a car crash in slow motion. Many experts forget the "keep it simple" cardinal rule. They tend to go into too much detail and talk like they are speaking to their peers. This leads to all sorts of interruptions by the interviewer trying to clarify things and at the end we have nothing but a mess of scientific terms, too much detail and nobody any the wiser what the researcher meant. At the same time the expert will feel they haven't been understood or they never got to the most important point - both of which are likely to be true. Worse still, if that recurs too often in interviews, your world expert will stop getting calls. In short, there is no excuse for lack of preparation. If an expert is prepared to put together 20 mins worth of slides and a speech for a conference with an audience of just 200 scientists then they have no excuse not to prepare for a media interview where the audience is measured in tens or hundreds of thousands. And if they think there isn't someone in that audience who couldn't be useful for their career, then they better go back and review a few statistics lectures.
- Always remember YOU ARE THE (WO)MAN!: It is completely bizarre that scientists are terrified of reporters. Let me tell you a trade secret, reporters are more scared of researchers. If anyone can make a reporter look stupid, it's someone with a PhD talking about something the reporter barely understands. Reporters often have little expertise in the researcher's field so you bet they are worried about asking stupid questions. They also really want to make sure their report is right. If it's not, members of the science community will send emails pointing out the holes and then they will have an editor/news manager breathing down their neck. Researchers actually have a fair bit of power in an interview situation. When a reporter asks a question that is inaccurate, the scientist can actually say, "well, that is not quite right..." and explain why. Trust me, they won't argue with you or if they do it will only be to quote someone's reported opinion back at you. And, if you have done your preparation properly, your researcher should already have that answer covered.
There are a lot of other useful pointers to help control an interview but if your researcher enters the interview well prepared using the simple points above and with the confidence that they are more likely to terrify the journalist than the other way round, interviews will get a lot simpler and a lot easier to control.
None of this is rocket science - your researchers are already across the rocket science stuff anyway - it is just about preparing researchers properly so they can keep the interview in a place where they are in control and comfortable. And if a researcher nails that snappy quote to pull out like a rabbit from a hat at the right moment, watch the slow smile spread across their face when it turns up in media stories right around the world.
In a recent paper from our group we even came up with a snappy name for a newly discovered phenomenon that wasn't in the paper itself but is now used in the peer reviewed literature. But that is a tale for another day...