Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Preparing for interviews

10 Jul 2018
Talking to the media about your research can be nerve wracking, but it doesn't have to be with a little practice.

By Ruth Francis

The press release is out and the media are interested in covering your research, and now you need to be ready to answer questions clearly. To make the most of your interview, check who you'll be speaking to, review your key messages, and enjoy sharing your passion with new audiences. 

When a reporter asks to interview you, you'll first need to cover some logistics. Is it a print story or broadcast? Will the reporter speak to you on the phone, or does it have to be in person or even in a studio? Confirming this ahead of time means there won't be any last-minute surprises.

Find out who will be reading, listening or watching the report – science buffs, general news consumers, young students? Even if the journalist is knowledgeable about the field, her audience might not be. Check out previous coverage by the specific outlet to determine the appropriate tone and level of technicality. 

What are the key points about your work to get across? You might only get time to cover two of your three key messages, so make sure they take priority, especially for broadcast where time is extremely limited. Even speaking to a print reporter for an hour could result in just one quote. Think of some short and snappy statements about your work that are jargon-free – those often make the most powerful quotes. 

Practice! Answering practice questions out loud helps build confidence, just as it does for a job interview or thesis defense. Be prepared to talk broadly about the subject and for some unexpected questions, but try to come back to your key points that you want to convey throughout the conversation. Do think of the interview as just that – a conversation. Have your pithy quote at the ready, but don't sound like you are reading from a script or presentation slides.

Remember that the reason journalists want to speak to you is to make sure they explain your research correctly and to better understand the work. Research is written for other scientists in concise and technical language, while the broader public expect a different, more conversational tone. This is your chance to use your own words. Explain things as you would to a relative rather than a peer. 

When it is time for the real interview, try to relax and show your personality. Many researchers are passionate about their field and what they're working on, but fail to show that passion in interviews due to nerves or concern about being taken seriously. You are the expert, that's why you're being interviewed; conveying knowledge and passion builds trust and helps the audience warm to you. Smile and enjoy it! 

Not sure what questions to practice for? Here are some of our go-tos:

1. Take a step back from the detail and try to summarise the research in two sentences.
2. What is significant about this work? 
3. Did you hit a challenge or discover something unexpected along the way? 
4. What inspired you in the first place? 
5. How long have you been working on this question? What are you next steps for this research?
6. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with over 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.