Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Preparing for a media interview (David Cann)

Photo by Michal Czyz | unsplash.com

While opening your research up to the public through the media can be a daunting step into the unknown, there are plenty of potential benefits, including a broader audience, collaboration opportunities, and increased funding.

For researchers at La Trobe, there is a cornucopia of resources available for researchers looking to write for the public, write a press release, or broaden their audience. But preparing for a media interview – whether it be for print, radio or television – is a challenging task for any researcher, thanks in no small part to the unpredictability of interviews!

As an agricultural scientist, my run-ins with the media have been somewhat unorthodox, to put it lightly. From small town papers to state-wide radio, giving media interviews has given me opportunities to think about my research from different perspectives, and reframe it in ways that make it accessible to different audiences.

I am a long way from an expert in interacting with the media, but if you feel ready to start answering questions from journalists, you'll need to start asking yourself these questions first!

What are you getting yourself into?

Before you sit down to give any interview, take a look at some previous interviews conducted by the same outlet and try to answer the question: what is the audience of each piece presumed to know before they consume it?

Audiences, particularly Western ones, are comfortable with an introduction-problem-problem solved structure, and are more likely to absorb your research meaningfully if it is presented to them in a linear narrative.

This is why understanding the assumed knowledge of your audience is vital – if you have to backtrack mid-interview to explain concepts or terminology, the narrative structure is disrupted, and your audience is confused and eventually lost. Alternatively, a narrative that never makes it out of the introduction stage because a researcher labours over basic points is another way to help an audience lose interest.

What’s your key message?

By now, you’ve heard all about elevator pitches and three-minute theses, but interviews require a different type of distillation. In a media interview, you sign off a lot of control to the journalist opposite you – including the length of the piece, the questions asked and, to a certain extent, the topics broached.

You need to be able to compress your research into one core, simple message that your audience will be able to consume and then communicate themselves. As you don’t have control over the length or direction of the piece, your key message should be conveyed early on, and can become a touchstone for you to pivot back to if you get lost or overwhelmed.

Write your message down on a piece of paper and, if you’re giving a radio or phone interview, have it directly in front of you during the piece if your mind goes blank and, if nothing else, you have a strong closing statement to burn into the minds of your audience.

How can you benefit from fresh perspective?

When I present my research at a conference, I’m normally presenting to other scientists who, just like me, think like scientists. When I’m at a dinner party, I’m surrounded by a diverse group of people who don’t necessarily think like scientists (kind of like media consumers). This means that even though some of the smartest scientists in my field can ask me a doozy of a question, I’m often far more stumped by a question from a nurse or teacher who’s hearing about my research for the first time. A dinner party is honestly the closest parallel I have to giving a radio interview – interesting, thought-provoking and sometimes misinformed questions from an inquisitive audience who are attentive but don’t have all night to talk about just you. So, in preparation for your next interview, cook up a storm and invite a bunch of friends, sit back, and wait for the questions to come!

What’s something your audience might misunderstand?

During one radio interview, I was prompted to clear up a certain misconception about my study – something scientists in my field would know, but not necessarily the public. I realised that if the journalist hadn’t asked me directly, lots of people listening may have walked away with a message quite different to the one I was trying to get across.

Since then, I’ve addressed these potential pitfalls up front. If the results of your research only apply to a certain group of people, don’t forget to state that explicitly, so your findings are kept in context.

Understand that the journalist wants to maximise the 'bang' of their piece, but don’t feel pressured into answering uncomfortable questions or making outlandish claims. And don’t expect your audience to know the difference between 'entomology' and 'etymology'; do expect them to spend your entire interview wondering why a word expert knows so much about bugs if you don’t make your job description clear.

If you can answer these questions, then congratulations! You’re ready to take the media interview plunge.

I look forward to seeing/hearing/reading all about it!

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David Cann is a third-year PhD student in the Crop Agronomy Group at La Trobe University. 

Dave's research focuses on breeding winter wheat varieties for low-rainfall zones, helping crop farmers in southern Australia adapt to changing climate conditions. He is interested in farm management, sustainable agriculture and global food security. 

David is an avid traveller and has a Diploma of Languages in Italian. He tweets from @the_ag_lab.



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