Science Communication

11 tips for giving a great interview to journalists

How to be clear, concise and compelling when talking about science and medicine

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Louis Cohen, MD, a clinician and researcher at Mount   Sinai Hospital, inspired the author of this story with his "clarity,   organization, and flexibility in fielding questions."“Thanks for a great interview!”

That’s something I rarely say after talking with a scientist, but Dr. Louis Cohen, a clinician and researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, deserved it. I’m writing this article fresh from my phone interview with him, inspired by the young scientist’s clarity, organization, and flexibility in fielding questions.

All too often, the opposite is true: I finish a 30-minute interview exhausted by the effort of pulling out the information I need from someone who certainly is knowledgeable but doesn’t understand how to communicate his or her work to someone outside the field. As the Nobel Prize-winning playwright George Bernard Shaw noted so eloquently, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

If your scientific work is important – and especially if it has implications for the clinic – you want to make it as easy as possible to get it “out there.” For that to happen, it helps to know how to give a great interview – clear, concise and compelling – to the media. Here are some tips to help you do that.

1. Have your story ready. 

It’s never too early to frame the story of your work, with key highlights, milestones, challenges and achievements. You’ll have material to draw from and won’t have to reinvent the wheel each time you have an interview. What prompted you to pursue your chosen field? What problem are you trying to solve and why is it important? Describe what you’ve been doing succinctly and logically, building to your most recent results and then looking ahead. Your story is the roadmap from which you will pick and choose your main points for each interview. Be prepared.

Do this exercise even if no one from the media has approached you yet. You’ll be ready when they do, and meanwhile will also be in a good position to discuss your work with your organization’s communications department or give a presentation.

2. Research the publication.

Google the publication in which the article quoting you will appear. Skim a few articles to understand the readership: Consumers? Scientists? Managers? Government officials? Are they interested in innovation? Problem solving?

As you prepare for the interview, frame your story in a way that fits with the publication’s overall approach, explaining why the reader of this specific publication should care about your work.

3. Research the journalist.

Use Google, LinkedIn or Twitter to quickly become familiar with the journalist who will interview you. Has he or she already written on topics related to your area of expertise? Knowing this will help you determine how much explanation you’ll need to give to make your work understandable.

4. Get context.

If possible, find out the premise and scope of the article. Will other people also be quoted? (Usually yes, but don’t expect to know in advance who they might be.) Does the writer have thoughts about what you can add to the discussion? (The writer may have read up on your work and have an idea of how it might fit into the article.) Use this information to think about your work in the bigger picture of what is going on in your field. If your work builds on the work of others, be prepared to acknowledge your predecessors or fellow scientists.

[pullquote align="right"]"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."— George Bernard Shaw[/pullquote]

For example, Dr. Cohen’s area of expertise is functional metagenomics — a way of analyzing DNA from commensal bacteria without prior culturing. In our interview, he briefly explained how metagenomics differs from working with bacteria in culture. In response to my question about the importance of his work, he said that until recently, metagenomics had primarily been used to study bacteria in soil samples. But while working in the laboratory of Dr. Sean Brady, he began to use metagenomic techniques for clinical purposes — for example, to study gut bacteria.

5. Ask for questions in advance even though you won’t always get them.

Some writers provide questions in email to help you prepare for a phone or in-person interview. I don’t like to do that since I feel the best interviews flow organically from the discussion; however, I do share in advance the key areas we’ll be talking about, such as highlights of your work; challenges that need to be overcome; and what’s ahead. Be aware that even if a writer provides questions in advance, he or she may veer away from them during the actual interview, so it’s not enough to prepare only for those particular questions.

Some writers ask questions in email in lieu of doing a phone or in-person interview. Again, this is not something I do unless it’s absolutely necessary because of an extremely tight deadline or insurmountable time differences; I prefer to have an actual conversation. If you agree to an email interview, be aware that you may be quoted verbatim, so think carefully before you write.

6. Ask how much time the interview will take.

There are two advantages to asking approximately how much time the writer needs. First, you’ll know how much time to set aside in your schedule (to avoid distractions, find a quiet place for the interview and switch off your cell). Secondly, when preparing for the interview, you can practice getting your key points into the allotted time frame.  If you have only five minutes, you probably can’t make more than one or two points, so make them count. Don’t drift into long explanations; instead, as Dr. Cohen did, offer to email a PDF of a recently published article that is relevant to the discussion and make yourself available for follow-up questions by phone or email.  

Importantly, be on time for your interview. Writers on deadline appreciate it, and if you’re late and they’re interviewing other sources, they may move on to the next — and you’ve lost an opportunity.

7. Prepare your key points — but be ready for anything.

If you’re accustomed to working with the media or have given a number of presentations on your work, you may fall into what I call “automatic pilot” mode. Simply put, this means you are telling your story as you’ve done many times before. While that may provide good input for my article, I know I’m unlikely to get quotes that haven’t already appeared in other publications.

The desire to get “fresh quotes” often drives me to interrupt the speaker and “derail” him or her from automatic pilot. One of my favorite strategies is to halt the source after he or she makes a sweeping statement and ask for a specific example.

Case in point: Dr. Cohen said his work with commensal bacteria led him to think about “a whole slew of human diseases we know are associated with (a specific pathway).”

“Such as?” I asked, before he could go further.

Without missing a beat, he segued directly into a discussion of his clinical area of interest and conditions associated with the pathway.

Yet many times when I’ve asked for specifics, a source has asked me to wait while he or she tries to think of an example. Have your specifics ready.

8. Use conversational language.

Everyone, including scientists, likes to read a good story. And a good story is best told without jargon, without acronyms and with scientific terms used sparingly. Quotes that sound like they’re from a real person rather than from a peer-reviewed journal are more likely to end up in the final article.

9. Stay relaxed.

Lack of interview experience, a tight time frame for the interview and the “stature” of the publication you’re being interviewed for all can contribute to nervousness that’s akin to stage fright. That tension can cause your mind to go blank or your voice to sound shaky and insecure. The antidote is to be prepared:

  • Bullet out your key points and keep them in front of you; don’t try to write a script.
  • Dress comfortably
  • Do the interview in a quiet place
  • Breathe normally (tension can lead to shallow breathing). It may help to pretend you’re talking to a friend or colleague.

10. Don’t feel you have to answer every question.

Sometimes you’ll get a question you don’t want to answer. Perhaps it veers into controversial territory and you’re not sure you want to be quoted on one side or the other. Or the question may deal with an area that is outside the scope of your work and you simply don’t know the answer. Say something like, “That’s a great question; I’ll think about it and get back to you. Or, “That’s a good point, but it’s not my area of expertise.” If you don’t know, say so, and the interview will move on from there.

11.  Don’t talk “off the record.”

Asking to talk off the record can make it seem as though you have an axe to grind but don’t want to do it publicly. I’ll always say “yes” if an interviewee asks to speak off the record because I’m curious to know what the person will say. But if while speaking off the record you give me a nugget of information I’d like to use, I will push to see if there’s a way to weave it into my article. If you want to avoid being pushed — or taking the risk that someone may include what you say despite your saying it’s “off the record,” steer clear of this practice. Only say what you’re willing to see in print.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Marilynn LarkinMarilynn Larkin (@MarilynnL) is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of the American Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer ReportsVogue, Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.

As a consultant on postural awareness and confidence building, Larkin has presented to corporations and nonprofits and at regional and national meetings of, among others, the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging, the American College of Sports Medicine, and New Jersey Dietetic Association.

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