Creating engaging content is tough, particularly in the sciences, where the subject matter is dense and technical. Interviewing scientists will help bring your story to life and provides expertise that can’t be found anywhere else. But interviewing people – especially scientists – can be intimidating for those without experience. How do you initiate and conduct an effective interview?
As a content creator, I have had the opportunity to interview many scientists for a range of content formats, including podcasts, blogs, and live webinars. Recently, I finished a series of interviews with a former President of the American Chemical Society, a MacArthur Fellow, and a White House advisor. The experience was a blast, but I was reminded that I was never taught how to interview.
While I am far from an expert on interviewing scientists, I thought it would be useful to share some of the basics for those looking to conduct your first interview.
Why Interviewing a Scientist is Different
Most of the advice about interviewing I have seen is meant for journalists that are attempting to talk with the popular and the powerful. Even if you haven’t read any other tips for interviewing, you may have absorbed certain ideas about journalism from pop culture. To set the stage, let’s review some of the reasons why interviewing a scientist is different from other forms of interviews.
Comfort with interviews: actors and politicians are constantly getting requests for interviews, but most scientists are almost never interviewed. This means they may be unsure about the whole process, so you do your best to put their mind at ease.
Limited information about sources: unless your interviewee is active on social media or has been interviewed before, it is tough to get background information about your interviewee. Focus your preparation on learning about their research work, and don’t expect to learn about their personal life unless you ask them about it
Aligned interest: one of the best parts about interviewing scientists is that the two of you often have similar goals – you both want to showcase their research and expertise. Make this clear from the start, and most scientists will say “yes” to an interview.
Functional: don’t expect your interviews to be elaborate. You hear stories of writers spending days hanging out with a specific source to get to know them, or interviewing them for hours. While I am sure some science writers do this, most of your interviews (especially as a rookie) will be a 30-minute Zoom call.
Keep these factors in mind and it will help set expectations.
Choosing a Scientist to Interview
Interviews generally come from one of two places: either you have a topic and you are looking for an expert to interview, or you have someone that you want to interview and you need to find an angle. In my experience, the more common situation is starting with a subject. In these cases, you get to pick who you are interviewing, which can be a daunting task.
If you are a content marketer, you should usually interview someone outside your company when possible. This dramatically adds to the believability and acts as social proof. People also care about titles and positions, so try to get the person with the fanciest job title possible. Yes, this might mean their schedule is busy, but you probably only need 30 minutes of their time, and they get to speak on something they are passionate about, so you may be surprised how many people say “yes.”
Beyond those rules of thumb, your choice of guest should depend on the project type. “Editable” content rewards subject matter experts since you can highlight the most interesting comments. On the flip side, Q&A pieces or live interviews reward charisma. If you are considering people you haven’t met, check if they appear in any social media or YouTube videos to get a sense of their communication style.
What about cases where the expert is decided for you? You will need to think hard about how to make compelling content. Do they have a story to share? Can you connect their science to a broader trend or theme? Just asking questions about research can lead to dead ends that are uninteresting for anyone other that subject matter experts.
Preparing Questions for Your Interview with a Scientist
As an interviewer, you should do much less speaking than your interviewee. Nevertheless, you need to guide the flow of the conversation with your questions. Well-crafted questions are essential to get quality content.
Do your best to understand the topic you want to discuss. Read, watch, and listen to as much content as you can get your hands on. Once you have foundational knowledge, it is possible to generate interview questions without much effort. Start with the most obvious question you can think of, then use variations on the following questions:
- How did you…
- Why did you…
- When did you…
- Will this be able to…
- How is this different than…
It is usually best to start with a whole mess of questions, than narrow down your list to those that are most relevant and impactful. Your questions should be clear and simple whenever possible. Questions that are confusing or poorly structured could be misinterpreted, which leads to problems in the overall flow of ideas. “Simple” questions may sound boring or shallow, but simple questions can often have profound answers.
- What real-world effects will this have?
- Why did you decide to research this subject?
- How does this technology differ from others on the market?
- What are the barriers to implementing this technology? Are there limitations?
- Which topic do you plan to research next?
Questions like these are straightforward to understand but can lead to engaging discussions. With that being said, questions like these are generic. Include some questions that are subject-matter specific. Your interviewee will appreciate that you put in the effort to understand the subject, and you will be prepared to respond to your interviewee’s responses.
Your strategy in questioning will depend on what type of content you are creating. Live interviews obviously can’t be edited, so be prepared to ask questions to fill in any missing details. Your focus in this case will be to maintain a fluid and compelling dialog. On the other hand, if you are looking for quotes you plan to use to support a blog post or ebook, you can spend your time circling back and drilling down on the points that need clarification.
One piece of advice for interviews that will be shared in full: don’t get too in the weeds too quickly. There have been a few science podcasts and webinars I’ve experienced where the discussion jumps straight into deeply technical content. I usually get bored and tune out. If the build-up had been smooth, I might have been more engaged.
I usually send my questions ahead of time to the person I am interviewing. You are not an investigative journalist or FBI interrogator trying to catch someone in a lie. Your interviewee should be articulate and intelligent – sending questions (at least a day or two) early helps them be at the top of their game! You are also not locked into following this as a script – you can still ask related topics as they come up in the conversation, but your listed questions will ensure you get the answers you need.
Idiot Proof Your Scientist Interview
As an interviewer, I feel like my IQ is cut in half as soon as I ask the first question. Half of my brain is panicking (usually about nothing), and the other half is trying to calm down the panicked half. I have very few neurons to allocate to navigating the actual conversation.
I don’t think this is just me – others I talk to have said they don’t operate at 100% capacity when conducting interviews. While I haven’t been interviewed many times, I don’t feel this brain drain when I am the one answering questions. I focus on the subject matter and my train of thought. But when I interview others, my brain doesn’t know what to do with itself while the other person is talking.
In practice, this means I make interviews as idiot-proof as humanly possible. Here are some steps
- Practice using any technology before running the interview (even if I have used them many times before).
- Have my notes in a location that is accessible and obvious.
- Remind the interviewee what the conversation will be used for, and check if there is any internal legal approval process internal to their company, if relevant.
- If any directions or details need to be shared, I write them all down in full at the top of the sheet with the questions. If they are critically important, I will bold or highlight them.
- Close all unnecessary windows on my computer. Set my status to “Do not disturb” on internal messaging systems.
- Arrange my schedule so I don’t have critical appointments right before or after my interview.
- I turn on the recording as soon as possible and leave it on until the meeting is done.
All of this sounds obvious, but I promise that forgetting is easier than it seems. Maybe you aren’t like this and don’t suffer from interview-induced-brain-damage, but it is better to be over-prepared for your first attempt.
Editing the Interview
I mentioned earlier that you are not an FBI interrogator – you are also not a court stenographer. It is not your job to share the words of your interviewee verbatim. Your job is to make your interviewee sound smart, likable, and interesting. Editing is the key to accomplishing this goal.
Grammar isn’t real in spoken conversations – most people use never-ending run-on sentences or a series of choppy half-sentences. Humans can translate this incoherent mess into meaningful language when we talk, but it is sometimes shocking how incoherent things look on the page. When editing interview transcripts, imagine you are “translating” from spoken English into written English.
Examples of edits that (I think) are acceptable:
- Removing filler words, such as “like,” “you know,” or “umm”
- Removing repeated words or phrases
- Cut entire sentences if they are not functionally redundant
- Pronouns can get confused, especially if you are editing out sentences or phrases – write the name of the person or thing being referenced instead of he/she/they/it if it improves text
- Reorder words in a sentence to clarify their meaning and improve the flow
- Scientists sometimes provide more detailed scientific explanations than is necessary – strategically edit to remove irrelevant and uninteresting points
On the other hand, you should not feel quotes need to be grammatically perfect. In fact, keeping a few minor errors in will add character and make the discussion feel more authentic. Just make sure the text is readable.
To be crystal clear: do not make up quotes, and do not misleadingly edit quotes. Will anyone find out you did this except your interviewee? Unlikely, but no quote is worth torching a relationship.
When in doubt, you can also email your interviewee to ask for clarification or if your rephrasing is acceptable. “You said [quote]. You made an important point, but your word choice was hard to follow because [reason – phrased politely]. Would it be OK if I used [rewritten quote] instead? I’d appreciate a response by [date], due to my deadline” Turning it into a yes/no question will increase the chance you get a fast response. The worst case scenario is they don’t get back to you, so you run the quote as you suggested with a clear conscious.
How to Interview a Scientist for Marketing Content
If you are a content marketer looking to interview a scientist, there are a couple of specific recommendations to add. A science communicator is looking to generate engaging content, but as a marketer, you are also looking to sell. Inexperienced creators can make mistakes based on these potentially conflicting goals.
You may be tempted to ask questions like:
- “What do you like about *product*?”
- “What do you use *product* for?”
- “Would you recommend *product*?”
These get boring fast.
Resist the urge to create purely promotional content, and focus on finding a theme that is educational, entertaining, or insightful. Is there a story with characters, a challenge, and a resolution? Are there any unexpected observations or counterintuitive findings? Don’t shoehorn your product or company into the role of the main character in the story, but rather a helpful side-kick or wise mentor.
Content marketing interviews are also not the same as market research interviews. Market research interviews are meant to better understand your customers to inform product development and marketing strategy. The questions in this interview will often focus on product features and the buying process, which is pretty dull for most people outside your company.
The other big difference is confidentiality. Content marketing is shown to an external audience, so you shouldn’t ask questions that touch on sensitive areas or invite criticism of your company. By contrast, market research should be confidential, so people can be frank about their company and provide honest feedback. Crossing these streams may confuse what is and is not eligible for sharing.
Conclusions – Journalism Versus Content Interviews
I should also note that I do not have any experience in journalism. Seasoned reporters will do many more interviews and will likely have stricter standards. While there is a lot to learn from journalists regarding interviewing, be aware that their objectives and approach will differ from a content creator.
When I started conducting interviews with scientists, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I had a hard time finding helpful resources. Hopefully, this guide helps new content creators to get a head start on how to interview a scientist.
2 thoughts on “How to Interview a Scientist – Tips for Writers and Marketers”
[…] approach. Say there is a professor you respect. Write about their research! Better yet, you could interview them about their work. Researchers are busy people (who isn’t?), but you are essentially offering free publicity for […]
[…] interviews with a subject matter expert, which can lead to great content and are a lot of fun. Interview techniques are a separate topic, but I recommend you do a ton of prep work before reaching out to schedule a conversation. […]