Science Communication: Giving Interviews. Questions and Answers
In the second part of my mini-series on giving interviews as a scientist, I talk about what kind of questions to expect, the interviewing journalist’s needs, and how to prepare the answers.
Let’s talk about what questions to expect, and how to prepare the answers when you agreed to give an interview as a scientist.
My name is Dennis Eckmeier, I’m an independent science communicator with a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Since 2017 I’ve been interviewing scientists for podcasts and YouTube videos.
This is the second video in this mini-series about giving interviews. I boil my experience down to practicable advice for scientists who want to be prepared to give interviews or may even think about taking further steps into science communication.
I also have a series about academic writing on my channel.
If you are interested in communicating your science to expert or lay audiences, please subscribe and press the bell; otherwise, you might not be notified of new videos.
Do not go into an interview unprepared. That’s where a lot of those stories of complaining academics come from, who feel their work is being misrepresented by the media.
I will give you some background information and tips that will help you prepare.
The depth into which your interviews go, will vary: You might simply be asked to briefly comment on somebody else’s work. Citing “an expert not involved in the study” is good practice in science journalism; these quotes help the journalist and their audience understand the true implications of a study.
But these interviews are restricted to a brief review in lay terms. On the other end of the spectrum the interviewer may explore every interesting detail about you and your work. The interviews you will most likely encounter, will not go that deep, of course.
In order to prepare, make sure you have a good idea of what the journalist will be asking and what they think the angle will be. Ask them to send you example questions, if they didn’t do so, already. Also, check what they published previously, and carefully read related press releases, if applicable. That’s often the primary source of information the interviewer will have.
the interviewer’s goals
I can’t prepare you with standard questions that all interviewers will ask. Those depend entirely on the context. But I can give you a general idea of what journalists need to cover, and how.
The journalist’s goal is to inform their audience, but they also need to get their attention and engagement. That’s because their audience – in contrast to the readers of you research papers – isn’t paid to learn about your work.
covering the facts
To include the factual information, the journalist needs to answer all or most of the following 6 elements in their piece:
The WHO – for example: who was involved, who is affected,
who paid for it
The WHAT – for example: what happened, what was done, what was the result
The WHERE – where are the researchers working, where did
an event happen, which geographical areas are affected
The WHEN – when did the researchers conduct the study,
when was it published, when did the incident happen
The WHY – why did the researchers choose this topic?
Why did they choose this specific approach?
The HOW – how was the study done?
To which extend these questions will be covered depends on the target audience’s interests and the scope of the piece.
Another important factor to cover is the “SO WHAT” of a story. Scientists often forget this part, because to us the search for knowledge is a strong motivator in itself. But in order for the journalist to pique the interest of a more general audience, they need to clearly communicate the implications a study may have outside academic circles.
And this “so what” may differ, depending on which aspect of the human existence they want to appeal to: The Mind, the Heart, and the Wallet
APPEALS – a demonstration
Let me demonstrate how the answers may change when you start thinking about who the audience is and which aspects you should appeal to. To keep it simple, I will answer the “Who” question for myself.
So, the bare facts are that my background in neuroscience, and I recently left academia, and became an independent science communicator.
appeal to the mind
Let’s say, I want to address an audience that likes to learn new things. I might say:
“In the context of my studies on the brains of vertebrates, I learned a lot about how the brain senses its environment, how it chooses what to focus on and how it forms memories.
When I decided to switch careers, I rediscovered my fascination for the skill of communicating effectively and became a science communicator.
I think some of the things I learned about the function of the brain are now helping me when creating podcasts and videos.”
Rather than simply stating that I’m a neuroscientist I mention research questions I touched on. I’m appealing to the audience’s curiosity, who are now expecting to learn more about how neuroscience could be applied to communication.
appeal to the heart
Now, let’s instead appeal to the heart:
To study biology had been my desire since I developed a fascination for animal life as a child. At the university, I became passionate about the neuroscience of animal behavior.
This passion carried me through a 4-year Ph.D. and 7 years as a postdoc at different research institutes. I even moved from Germany to the USA and then to Portugal. Then, I realized
that the academic career path was – unfortunately not going to work out for me, any further – I wasn’t going to get to where I wanted to be. Luckily, I re-discovered a fascination for effective communication. So, now I am happy to help scientists communicate their work!
This version would appeal to an audience that is interested in scientists and science communicators as people. Humanizing the scientist is a tool to bridge the gap between the expert and the audience. I use words that are strongly associated with feelings and expressed my own delights or disappointments.
appeal to the wallet
Now, the wallet. Depending on the context it can be about money, or economics on different levels from personal to global, but also about planning your life, career decisions, and so on.
So, I might say:
I became an independent science communicator, following 4 years as a Ph.D. student in Germany, and more than 7 years as a postdoctoral researcher at internationally renowned institutions in the USA and Portugal.
Postdoc positions provide little planning security, and only very few positions in academia do. Because of that, staying in academia would have been a very risky decision. Being independent as a science communicator is also risky, but I think it provides many more opportunities than the academic career ladder.
This version might appeal to an audience that is interested in career options for scientists, like early career researchers.
the appeal changes the message
Did you notice that me trying to give my answer with one of these aspects in mind immediately turned it into a story that was much more interesting – I hope? It also added information about my character without stating traits explicitly. You certainly know me much better, now.
The three answers all covered what I did in the past and my transition to a new career, but the messages were different. So, this example illustrates, why it is important to figure out what the angle will be before you go into the interview.
In addition to straight answers, try and think of anecdotes that will illustrate your messages. What were the pivotal moments in your research? What was at stake? How did you experience them? What did you learn?
Prepare answers to the questions you expect to encounter, word for word. I’ve seen experienced researchers come into an interview confidently, and then stumble through the answers.
That’s because they underestimated how an unfamiliar situation makes a familiar task – like speaking about your work – much harder. Large areas of your brain are processing all these novel impressions. So, you want to be in a place where you don’t need to think too much about
what to say, how, and why.
When preparing, our goal is to make it as easy as possible for the interviewer to share our words, unaltered. We want to give them quotes that are short, unambiguous, memorable, and encapsulate the essence of our messages. This way we minimize the risk of misinformation.
Identify, exactly, what you want the audience to take away, phrase it as you would normally say it, then edit it so that a smart but scientifically lay friend or relative will understand it.
I could make a whole series of videos about different things to be aware of when translating science for a lay audience. Non-experts don’t simply lack knowledge of scientific facts. They also are not trained to think like a scientist. After all, science needed to be invented because humans are prone to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.
Remember, that it takes a lot of effort and training to think like a scientist – and even well-trained scientists may still fail. That’s why communicating the intricacies of scientific research is so difficult.
For now, I can only share a few rather general quick tips that should get you pretty far. They all are about being mindful of moments where the audience might get confused or misunderstand. It is your task to avoid such moments or to prepare well-phrased explanations.
When using comparisons and metaphors, understand the audience’s experiences. I, for example, have no picture in my mind of the size of a football field, let alone thousands. The
same goes for units. For example, when addressing Americans, use the imperial system. Otherwise, use the metric system. Completely unfamiliar units, like Angstrom, need to be explained.
When using scientific terms be aware that most are unknown and some are easily misunderstood. “Statistical significance”, for example, is a concept that is hard to understand in the first place, and the word “significant” – being a familiar word that has a very different meaning for your audience – further complicates the situation.
When talking about numbers, give them both relative and absolute numbers. Only then will the audience be able to get a realistic picture. An effect may triple, and still be very small.
The audience also needs to understand the limitations of the work, the state of the field, and how you weigh possible scientific criticism.
In this video we learned the fundamental questions that a journalist or communicator needs to cover: Who, What, Where, When, Why, How and the So what? The latter usually becoming the hook to pique the interest of the audience. I then gave you an example of how different the answers can be, when appealing to three different aspects of human existence: intellect, emotion, and economics. This is why you should be familiar with what the audience expects to learn from you, beforehand.
For the sake of fun and practice, you can answer every one of these questions using the three different appeals. But if you are preparing for a specific interview, you should let yourself be guided by the questions given to you in advance and your knowledge about the target audience and how it is usually approached by the journalist.
Acknowledge that a lay audience doesn’t simply lack scientific factual knowledge but is also not trained to think like a scientist. So, try to predict what may confuse the audience, and prepare explanations.
Spend some time phrasing your answers so that the message is unambiguous and clear to the target audience. Write them down word for word, practice them, and have them ready during the interview, in case you find yourself blanking – which happens to the best.
If you have a remark, question, or suggestion, let me know in the comment section.
In the next video, we will talk about how to actually give the interview.
I thank you very much for watching,
I hope I didn’t overshare,
Have a good day,