Tell Your Story

Preface

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: Understanding Media

Chapter 3: Messages

Chapter 4: The Interview

Chapter 5: Interviewing
On-Camera

Chapter 6: The Adversarial
Interview

Chapter 7: Public Presentations

Chapter 8: Online Media

Chapter 9: Taking Charge

Conclusion

Acknowledgements

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Chapter 3
THE ART OF BREAKING DOWN MESSAGES

Chapter 3 photo

That we all should have this problem: OHSU cancer researcher Brian Druker faces the press after announcement of a $100 million gift from Nike athletic-wear mogul Phil Knight and his wife. New funding is a frequent (and welcome) occasion for media attention at research institutions.

Making the media work for you
What is your immediate reaction when you get a request for a media interview? If you’re like most people – professionals or otherwise -- there is an immediate sense of dread or anxiety.

What do they want from me? What’s their angle? Will I make a fool out of myself? Will they sensationalize and misquote me?

These are common reactions. And notice they are all defensive responses. The fact of the matter is that most of the time, it’s to your advantage that they’ve contacted you.

It’s your chance to tell your story, promote your work, and the let the world know what you’re up to. In the current media universe, what you say – whether it is print, radio, or TV – will likely be picked up online. And as we all know, the potential audience for any news organization website is huge.

Defense vs. preparation
Much of the anxiety that comes when you get the interview request comes from the great unknown: wondering what you’ll be asked and how you should handle the questions.

What’s wrong with this picture? You’re on the defensive here, waiting passively to see what gets thrown at you, giving the media control over your destiny (or at least the interview). But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take charge!

In any interview situation with the media or even a public talk, you should always understand that you’ve been given a special opportunity to relay your message(s).

Your job is not to merely answer the questions posed to you, but to stress the messages that you feel are important. In other words, don’t be on the defensive in allowing the interviewer to take charge of the interview. Go on the OFFENSIVE with your messages.

Own the interview!
Every politician worth his or her salt knows this. To them, it really doesn’t matter what questions are asked of them (unless of course, there’s a scandal at hand). They’re going to say what they WANT to say, whether it’s an answer to a question or not.

So the first step to a successful interview is to know what your messages are, so you can articulate them readily, clearly, and in a relaxed and compelling manner.

How do you determine your messages for a given interview?

Whatever the subject of the interview – whether it’s your own work, or comments on some national news item – you have one or more central points to get across to the audience. Deciding ahead of time what they are will put you in the driver’s seat and help you know how to handle any question that comes at you.

What are your messages? Start by thinking about the audience you’re addressing.

Analyzing your audience
Successful communication involves two parties: the sender and the receiver. An effective message achieves a meeting of the minds between these two parties. For this to happen, the sender has to put the message in a language the receiver understands.

This leads to one commandment, common to all effective communication: KNOW THY AUDIENCE.

In the lab, we’re surrounded by others who speak scientific jargon. Most of us can get through the workday without talking with anyone who isn’t at least close to having a Ph.D. Guess what? The media (and their audiences) usually aren’t scientists.

This means that when you get ready for an interview, you can’t talk about your work in the same way you’d talk to a colleague, or even a first-year graduate student. Instead, imagine talking with your grandmother...assuming your grandmother isn’t a neuroscientist! If your grandmother wouldn’t know a term or concept, chances are your media audience won’t either.

All good writers and speakers think about their audiences. Before the interview, it is crucial that you find out who will be reading, hearing or seeing the story:

These are questions you should try to answer beforehand so you can formulate your answers accordingly.

What do you want them to know?
If you’re talking to the mass media, chances are you’ll be addressing a general public audience as opposed to your scientific peers.

So, though your research might be highly specific and structured, in a media interview you’ll want to look for the aspects of your work that relate to the general public. How do the issues you’re discussing in the interview affects people, help people understand more abou themselves and those around them, better peoples’ lives, etc.? What are the basic, bottom-line messages you want the public to hear about your work?

All too often, interviewees tend to forget about “the big picture.” What is the larger purpose of your research? It’s important to explain what it involves and what you’re trying to learn. But why are THOSE aspects important? That’s what should drive your answers! Think short sentences, condensing ideas, and making it compelling.

Here are some examples of basic messages:

Soundbites are your friends. Many of us look askance on soundbites, since they are sometimes used to reduce complex thoughts to overly simplistic snippets. A well-thought-out soundbite, however, can instantly help the audience understand what you’re saying. And, a short, to-the-point sentence is more likely to get used.

One of the most common complaints we hear from those who have been interviewed for a newspaper article of a TV news story is “Why did they use THAT quote?” My response is it may have been the most succinct, pithy quote you gave. The media likes succinct and pithy, not to mention concise. Remember: If you think through and plan your messages carefully beforehand, everything you say will be something you’ll want quoted.

Practice makes perfect… or at least more relaxed
Once you’ve developed your messages, spend some time thinking about them before the interview. A longtime sports broadcaster once said that 90% of his success could be attributed to preparation. That’s true any time you’re giving a lecture or being interviewed by the media. The good news is it needn’t be hours of prep – most likely mere minutes.

If it’s going to be a phone interview, you can jot your messages down beforehand and have them handy to refer to as the interview proceeds. Go over in your mind (or better yet out loud) what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.

Preparation? More like rehearsing. It’s all about focusing on what you’re going to say. Focusing on your messaging is important before and during the interview. But if you don’t do it beforehand, there’s a really good chance you won’t express yourself as well when you’re answering questions.

Questions you can always expect
No matter what your research consists of, or why exactly a reporter is contacting you, there are some very general questions you are likely to get. Sometimes they are so general that you really don’t have good, crisp answers ready to go. Practice some of these basics ahead of time, thinking of big-picture answers, and you can relax and feel prepared. If reporters want more specifics, they’ll ask for them!

You should be ready to go with rehearsed answers to all of these questions before any interview. If nothing else, they’ll help you think through the rest of your messages!

Translating scientific terminology
If your audience is a general one, stay away from scientific or technical jargon. A reporter’s rule of thumb is to use words that an 8th grader would understand. You’re not trying to impress anyone here -- you’re trying to insure that they understand what you’re saying. “Neuron” may be a no-brainer (excuse the pun) to you, but it certainly isn’t to most people.

Below is a list of terms that are part of the everyday neuroscience lexicon. Pause for a moment to think about some 8th graders you’ve met (who aren’t your own offspring). Are they going to be familiar with these?

acetylcholine amygdala axon optic nerve
brainstem CNS soma cerebellum
cerebral cortex cerebrospinal fluid corpus callosum
ventricles endorphin GABA gene expression
glia hemispheres hippocampus hypothalamus
limbic region lobes medulla oblongata nerve fiber
neuron parts neuron neurotransmitter nucleus
olfactory bulb dopamine peptides peripheral nervous system
protein pathway serotonin soma
sulcus synapse thalamus dendrite

(See http://www.morphonix.com/software/education/science/brain/game/brainarium/
brainarium_glossary.html
)

Probably not.

So how can you talk about your work if it involves concepts or terms like these? You have several strategies.

Whether you’re a researcher or an economist, if you can explain technical information in every day terms, your audience will not only appreciate the effort, but become more engaged with you and what you have to say. It is always impressive to hear top experts in technical fields translate something complicated into terms that make sense to the rest of us. Remember, you are trying to make science human and conversational!

Summary

Chapter 4: The Interview arrow