Interviewing 101: More from SciWrite 2020

The pandemic has a few upsides: students from Science Writing (ENG 520) got to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers from their office chairs. Here is the second of a series of posts with their perspectives.

Interviewing 101: Three Tips for Getting the Most from your Interviews

By Holly Starenchak

One of the most challenging tasks for budding science writers is conducting interviews. Learning how to correctly identify sources, ask the right questions, and sift through your notes to find the best quotes is a skill that takes time and practice to master. During the Science Writers 2020 Conference, a session called “The art of the interview: Getting sources to bring stories to life” highlighted suggestions from three science communication experts on how to conduct great interviews. Three of their most important tips are:

  1. Record everything

This was a point that was mentioned many times by several speakers. Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo points out that in addition to making sure you don’t miss any critical details it also, “makes people feel like it’s a real interview.” It is also important to record interviews when the subject is controversial or there may be questions later about what was said. Having the complete interview recorded is useful for ensuring there aren’t any misunderstandings.

  1. Don’t wait for clarity

Scientists often speak in a technical language specific to their particular field. For some science writers, it may seem a bit redundant to repeatedly ask interviewees to explain themselves. However, it is important to remember that if you don’t understand what they’re talking about in the interview, you won’t be able to write clearly about it later. Science reporter Stephanie Lee says, “It’s best to just try to clarify in that moment,” which prevents having to come back later to get clarification.

  1. Ask the dumb questions

One of the most uncomfortable parts of interviewing can be asking the dumb questions. Even if you know what the scientist is talking about, it is critical to keep your audience in mind. If the researcher hasn’t said something clearly, you’ll need to ask the question again in a different way. Public information officer Sarah McQuate points out that it is important to “let the researchers explain something that I might understand” but ask the question differently when, “I need them to explain to make the story better.”

Interviewing, regardless of the field, can be a challenging and sometimes even uncomfortable part of journalism. It is important for all science writers to remember that they are doing a critical part of their job when conducting interviews and they should be confident. Being respectful of interviewees time and actively listening are also crucial aspects of conducting good interviews. While learning how to conduct the best interview possible takes time, remembering these helpful tips will be useful when engaging scientists and other professionals will make the interview process better for everyone involved.