I’ve just been interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio, BoingBoing.net, and WCCO-TV. Whew! Fortunately these interviews weren’t for public consumption — they were part of a science-communication workshop with the Boreas environmental leadership program. But we actually had journalists from these three organizations come in, give a panel discussion, and then do mock interviews of us.
A few main things I learned:
Storytelling matters. I mean REALLY matters. People learn through stories, metaphors, analogies, parables — even if they don’t capture every detail, they’re a great starting point. Concrete examples (even hypothetical ones) are way better than abstract ideas, and examples people are familiar with are best of all. I’m fortunate that some of my work is at a very human scale. Even though nitrogen and phosphorus are basically abstract concepts to most people, they all understand urban trees and scummy lakes. From there, I can draw them in to the invisible world of nutrient cycles that link the two.
Use a personal pull from the very outset — readers/listeners/viewers want to know how your issue affects them. Don’t wend your way towards that idea; no matter how the reporter starts out, get that idea in right away and keep touch with it throughout. Realize that there are many reasons why people should care about your science, and focus on the ones that the audience are actually likely to care about. Media generally reaches a broad audience, so don’t focus on neighborhood-level benefits if there’s a regional issue to talk about.
Don’t be afraid to ask a reporter clarifying questions, or even to probe gently at their directions/assumptions/goals: “As a scientist, I’m curious about the public perception of…” or what the reporter does and doesn’t know about a topic, etc.
Anticipate challenges to your work, unhelpful tangents, etc. Learn to reframe, block, bridge — basically to take the reporter’s question and answer the one you wanted them to ask instead. You can even be so blunt as to say “That’s a good question, but an even better one is…” I hijacked of Don Shelby’s first question to me –he started out with something slightly confrontational about studying trees, and I really wanted to talk about water quality and the broader implications of my research. So I addressed his topic briefly, but really just used it as a starting point….ok, an excuse…to bridge to the issues I really wanted to talk about. Asking him afterwards if that would rub a reporter the wrong way, he said he hadn’t even realized that I went somewhere totally different. I gave him the who-cares and so-what that makes a great story, which apparently caught his interest!
Don got really challenging at the end of our brief interview, asking me what good is my research since I didn’t have any answers yet! In addition to countering that I’m a grad student just starting out, I told him to come back in two years and I’d have answers for him. He described it as issuing him a challenge in reply, which is apparently a Good Thing.
When in doubt, “That’s a good question” is also a great way to buy a few moments to think, or to preface “…and I wish we knew more about that.” Reporters like the compliment, and it sure as heck beats “Umm…”