ten steps for a successful on-camera science interview

Squinting into the blinding production lights, I slid my notes across the table and sighed in relief. It was the fourth on-camera interview I had conducted that day and, to my great relief, this one had gone extremely well.

I mean, the guy had nailed it. Looking my latest interviewee Peter in the eyes I gave him my heartfelt thanks for a job well done. He’d made it so easy on me. “Oh, well,” he said, looking embarrassed. “I don’t know about that. But I have done a lot of thinking about how controversial this subject is and how to talk about it.”

That is why Peter was great on camera. It was obvious that he had spent a lot of time thinking. His answers were organized, succinct and clear. This never, ever occurs without preparation, not even if you’re an expert on the subject at hand (and Peter very much was). There is no way you are going to nail an on-camera interview on a nuanced topic without preparation. I have interviewed brilliant specialists on-camera and they have done poorly because they didn’t prepare, or they didn’t prepare properly. So here are some tips to help you improve on-camera or feel confident enough to say ‘yes’ the next time someone asks you to step into the spotlight. It is very, very much worth it. The world needs your knowledge!

Ten Steps for a Successful On-Camera Science Interview

1. Know your audience. Every interview will be geared towards a different audience. They will rarely, if ever, be your colleagues and peers. Therefore you need to assess what education level your audience has, and what type of knowledge you can reasonably expect them to have on the matter at hand. For instance, you can assume people have a basic grasp on weather concepts from watching the news. You cannot assume that anyone has any knowledge on soil quality.

2. Consider context. You have reflected on your audience and you now understand that they don’t have any real prior knowledge or experience in your area of expertise. This means that you need to paint the big picture for them. Things that you accept as absolutely, incredibly obvious are not obvious to them (maybe not even to your interviewer, for that matter). You have lived and breathed this subject for years. They have not. Some good questions to consider are: Where does your issue fall into the bigger picture? How does it impact the greater good of society? You need to explain these things because they will not be immediately obvious to others as they are to you.

3. Understand the controversies. I can’t think of even one subject that isn’t surrounded by some controversy or another. Yours has its own share, I promise. When it comes to an on-camera interview, to protect yourself and ensure that your audience really listens (without pegging you as an enemy or ‘part of the problem’), take some time to consider these controversies. Then be sensitive to them. Do not attack the other side, insult them or talk down to their fears or worries. This will make you look like an arrogant *insert expletive* (even if the ‘other side’ really has it coming). Although today’s political environment rewards this kind of behavior, as a scientist or subject-matter expert this is generally an ill-advised tactic. You can be compelling in other ways.

4. Figure out the essence of your message. What’s your point? What do you want to get across? You need to boil that down to just a couple of sentences. If you can’t keep that message crystal clear in your mind, you’re going to start meandering when you speak. There’s nothing worse than a rambling interviewee spouting jargon and going off on tangents that appear to the listeners to be total non sequiturs.

5. Prepare a couple of stories. People looooove stories. Give us a good story. Toss in a few anecdotes. Bring it down to our level with a nice little tale that illustrates your point.

6. Don’t use acronyms. There are few things that are more off-putting than someone using an acronym that is unfamiliar. It makes the listener feel frustrated and uninformed, which can frequently put him or her on the defensive. Or it may just also cause them to tune you out. Try to become aware of the acronyms that you use regularly. When you’re on-camera, say the whole name. Say the whole name every time you reference it. Your listeners don’t know NAS. Say National Academy of Science (now see step number 8).

7. Slow down. When it comes to science and complex topics, speaking slowly is infinitely preferable to a rapid-fire verbal onslaught. The topic is dense and will already strain the listener. Do not force them to also strain to understand what you’re saying because you’re saying it so fast. Speaking slowly is also a good way to stay thoughtful about your words.

8. Reference with caution. There are institutions and policies and practices that you are familiar with because of your niche specialty. These will not be familiar to others. For instance, the National Academy of Science is familiar to people who work in science – very familiar. Yet to people outside of the field, this may mean nothing at all. You can’t expect to impress people if they don’t understand the source of what you’re citing. If you want your audience to understand the gravitas of something released by the National Academy of Science, then explain that this is a non-profit society of some of the greatest scientific minds of our day and they provide objective, independent advice to the nation.

9. Stop talking when you answered the question. This requires practice. This is, however, the key to a great interview. This is also the best way to prevent yourself from saying anything that can be used against you later. People generally hate silence, so they will fill it. You don’t need to be that person. Silence really can be golden. It can also save you from saying something you didn’t really intend to say.

10. Practice on your smartphone. I despised the sound of my voice and the way I looked on-camera. Then I did it so much that I got used to it and eventually got over myself. You will, too. Everyone hates the way they look and sound at first. Yet practicing is a wonderful, wonderful way of getting better. It’s so easy to record yourself on your smartphone. Prop it up against the wall and hit record. Then speak. Then listen to yourself. Then try again. There is no better way of improving than this.