‘I’m the annoying drunk at the end of a bar. I’m an idiot’ – A new strategy for interviewing academics?

I’m currently in Boston at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meetings. It’s my first time at a scientific conference as a member of the press rather than as a scientist and it’s my first time at an AAAS meeting. It’s big.

AAAS meetingThe press area

Yesterday morning I picked up my press badge, which gives me access to the press area. This includes a long hall filled with tables to allow us to plug in our laptops, rest our coffee and get some work done while looking down over the snow lined streets of Boston. It also includes access to the press briefing room where some of the scientists come in and give a very brief overview of the topic they’re presenting to the conference, with an opportunity for the press to ask questions. I attended one briefing yesterday and found the overview so brief, I didn’t even feel I had enough information to ask an intelligent question. I’ll be attending the full session today instead.

There’s also a media work room filled with computers where at least a couple people seem to be working constantly. Honestly, I haven’t seen them leave yet. It does make me curious as to why they are at the meetings as surely they could sit in front of their computer anywhere, but I’m obviously missing something.

I spent a great deal of time yesterday trying to read names on badges as people walked past me. Science writers aren’t always known for their faces. Carl Zimmer was easily recognized, but I finally put a face to Robyn Williams, who I followed quite closely when I lived in Australia as well as to the voice of Chris Joyce who I have heard many times on National Public Radio.

A new interview strategy: the drunk at the bar

I attended a communication session that included Chris Joyce as a speaker and panelist, which was directed at academics to provide advice on how to communicate with the media. Chris played a series of audio interview outtakes as both good and bad examples of how scientists communicate to the media. It was brilliant.

The first outtake was from an interview with a physicist who had won the Nobel Prize. The interviewer asked the scientist to explain in the simplest terms what he had won the award for. What followed was an incredibly long explanation starting from the very first researchers who had initiated the research in the 1970s – it was almost a reading of a references cited section.  I could sympathise with the interviewer as many academics that I’ve interviewed feel it absolutely necessary to recognise and give credit to the body of work that their research has built on. Fair enough – it’s a sign of humility and recognition of the shoulders he’s stood on to get where he is. However, this should be saved for the peer-reviewed literature, not a radio interview.

The second outtake contained the source of my new interview strategy. We were brought into a segment of the interview where the journalist had clearly been trying to get the biologist to say things in a very clear and concise way and things weren’t going well. You could hear the stress in the journalist’s voice as his deadline approached and his sound bite remained elusive. Finally the journalist cracks, “Look, pretend we’re in a bar and I’m the annoying drunk at the end of the bar – I’m an idiot – explain it to me simply.” Then the journalist starts to ask really simple and blunt, yet bordering on aggressive, questions, much like I would imagine the drunk at the end of the bar would. It works. The biologist retaliates with simple answers that are informative but to the point. It’s a stroke of brilliance!

The final outtake is an example of a journalist’s dream interview. The scientist speaks clearly with lots of analogies and visual metaphors. He even manages to draw an example from The Empire Strikes Back, which. There’s no jargon, just a clear understanding and vision of what the science is about. It’s wonderful.

I may never need to resort to the annoying drunk at the bar interview technique, but it’s nice to have these tools tucked away in case one gets desperate. Today, I will be attending sessions on human evolution and biology – always an interesting topic. I’m hoping that a few more people will have their name badges facing the right way so I can put more faces to the names, and maybe even introduce myself. After all, we all know it’s the hallway conversations that are usually the most fruitful at these things.

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