Some half-dozen or so years ago, a friend volunteered me to work with the World Federation of Science Journalists. I had just stepped down as president of the National Association of Science Writers (USA) and I took on the responsibility with a slight feeling of resentment.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I’d been an idiot. That it wasn’t only that I was working with science journalists from Africa and Asia, Europe and Latin America but that I was learning from them. I learned how much I’d taken for granted in terms of resources and access to information in my own country. I was reminded of how much one journalist could accomplish with a threadbare budget, a shared office computer, and a passion to make a difference.
No one could get that point across better than Christina Scott, the managing editor of Research Africa, one of South Africa’s most influential science journalists, who once illustrated it by walking onto a darkened conference stage holding up the faint glow of a cigarette lighter and reminding the audience that in the corners of Africa, some journalists did their jobs with no more than a spark of light or power in the room. And still did great work.
Christina was 49 years old when she died in an automobile accident just over a week ago. She was, typically, helping someone else at the time, teaching an intern how to drive, in the wrong place when the young woman lost control of the car. It was so sad for everyone concerned and it was such a shock.
You know those sparklers that children play with on July 4 and other firecracker holidays? Tiny wands of fizzing light? Christina was just like that – energy and sizzle, humor and glow. She liked people and her first instinct was to help them. She was, in fact, the kind of person that you could hope would light things up for a very long time. You can get a sense of that on the Remembering Christina Facebook page established by the South African Science Journalists Association.
Among the things posted there are a series of tips she wrote for SciDev, the science news service for developing countries. They’re tips to help scientists better communicate with journalists. And they’re Christina to a perfect fit in their dancing humor and lovely use of language. But they’re also thought-provoking and smart. Which is, I think, another wonderful way to remember Christina:
Christina Scott’s 10 things for a scientist to do in an interview
1. Say “What’s exciting about my research is …”. Say “The single most important issue here is ….”. Say “What I love about my work is ….”. The people who write, edit and eventually read, listen or watch the media probably don’t know much about your work. But we’re all human, and we all understand the feeling conveyed by words such as ‘exciting,’ ‘important’ and ‘love.’ Such words seldom belong in peer-reviewed literature so it can be disconcerting for academics to try them out, rather like long-neglected muscles that ache when you return to gym. But these words are great for most mass media interviews. (Don’t love your work? Take up another job.)
2. Use your hands as much as possible. Think Italian opera. Especially for television, there can never be too much movement. (Especially if you learn the great tv trick of waving your hands around at shoulder level. It feels really weird the first time you do it, as if you’ve somehow morphed into being a cricketing referee. But it looks great.) Vary your expressions as much as possible. Shake your head vigorously when you disagree. Nod your head when you agree. And alter your voice as much as possible – higher highs, lower lows. Speak loudly, because electronic recording equipment tends to cancel out lots of nuances and a lot of microphones pick up lots of background sounds, and electronic hissing and humming. Don’t back away from the hand-held microphone. Lean towards it. Research suggests that a vast amount of information is absorbed via the body language and the visual and verbal responses of the person being interviewed. Imagine what it’s like for someone who’s slightly deaf, a little hazy in vision, a listener who’s multi-tasking or a reporter who’s so anxious that they’re not following everything you say – you need to turn into an actor temporarily.
3. Make eye contact with the person asking the question. In an age of Blackberries, iPods, cellphones and laptops, face-to-face conversation is becoming a bit of a lost art. But you don’t have the chance in an interview to correct any misunderstandings, so you want to closely watch the person asking the questions, to see if they understand you. If they frown or their eyes glaze over, it’s not a good sign. Making eye contact is absolutely critical for television interviews, because if your eyes start shifting sideways to the cameraman, you look like a delinquent. And there’s no point in staring at yourself in the monitor to see if your hair is good, or trying to wriggle around to see which camera is aimed at you, because you’re going to make yourself look very, very strange.
4. Finish off a response with, “Does that make sense to you?” or “Does that answer your question?” Most people will be too shy to say they didn’t understand you at all, so you often have to assess this by looking at a presenter’s body language or listening to a caller’s tone of voice. If it’s a print interview, you may want to ask if the writer wants to read the quotation back to you, especially if you think you’ve baffled him or her completely. Sometimes people answer ‘yes, it makes sense, you said ABC’ and you realise that actually, no: you said ‘XYZ’ and you’re able to correct the misinformation easily. But don’t ask to listen to the tape, disc or read the notes – they’re not your property and you’re going to hate everything you say and do anyhow. By the way, don’t end every statement with this question, or you’re going to come across as needy and insecure. Save it for the most complex bits.
5. Anything involving the following words is good: the first, the best, the biggest, the most. Very few journalists are any good at numbers. But journalists – and their audience – understand a few concepts such as first, second and third. Big. Small.
6. Laughter. You’re allowed to laugh in an interview. Most interviews, believe it or not, are fun. Laughter makes you sound less intimidating. And it relaxes your vocal chords so you sound less nervous. I tell people to smile when they’re being introduced in a radio or television programme: it makes them sound (and look) better. (I also tell people not to cough or rattle papers when someone’s asking a question, it makes for horrible sound and visuals. You shouldn’t bring papers with anyhow. Bring props, if you can, but no papers.)
7. Use concrete words. If you refer to an organisation by the term ‘it,’ I may not know if you’re talking about the University of Pretoria or SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Trust). If you’re going to be edited, it helps to be as specific as possible. If someone’s writing down your words, being specific is a big help as well.
Use specific pronouns. ‘We ran a survey…’? Who’s the ‘we’? What about ‘With the help of my colleagues in the department of economics, I ran a survey…’ Words like ‘they’ and ‘them’ are other words which should be transformed into something more specific, like ‘My first-year students’ or ‘Many AIDS researchers ….’
8. Use the reporter’s first name, but only at the beginning of the sentence, where it can be edited out without damaging the sentence. Using first names is particularly effective in radio and television panel debates, where it establishes a sense of casual conversation and makes you sound in command of the situation.
9. Talk in a sequence of clear, short sentences. Avoid subordinate clauses because they don’t make sense if the top or beginning of the sentence is chopped off (or forgotten, or misspelt). Avoid talking in the style where you pick up where the questioner left off: instead, add the question to the sentence so it is as explicit as possible. I’ve heard people asking a question, and the interviewee is thinking about an earlier question, and responding to that earlier question without making it clear, and chaos ensues. Perhaps the question is, ‘What is the most important aspect of your work?’ A stupid question, but one you’ll get quite often from nervous junior reporters who have been thrown into the assignment without any time to do research by a cranky editor. In a real conversation, you might begin, “It ….’ But I’ve already said ‘it’ is a bad idea. Try: “The most important aspect of my work is ….” and fill in the blanks. If you need time to think, even if the interview is being broadcast live, you can always fall back on that time-honoured stand-by response: “Oooh, that’s a good question!”
10. Finish your statement by dropping your voice. It’s a universally-recognised symbol for ‘I’m done, now it’s your turn.’ If it’s a press conference or a print interview or a one-on-one interview, avoid speaking for more than ten minutes. After ten minutes, hand cramp sets in and batteries run out and your chances of getting misquoted zoom right up. Better to speak for no more than ten minutes total, including questions, and spend the next five minutes clarifying points made the first time around. Remember, most of the time, you’re going to get pruned, slashed, edited, squeezed and chopped by editors. So you may as well do it yourself. Save your own time as well as theirs.