How to be interviewed for TV – a guide for scientists, Christian Darkin

I – The news interview

This week there’s a story in the news. The headline basically is “giant dinosaur-eating frog discovered”. The news story seems to be that this is the largest fossil frog ever discovered and that it ate baby dinosaurs.

The truth of the matter is that this frog is no bigger than the biggest frogs alive today and that that nobody’s got any idea what it ate. In addition, the Discovery channel has just launched a programme about re-incarnating dinosaurs using the DNA of chickens.

There’s a recurrent theme about the way science is reported which comes up on one of the paleontology mailing lists I’m on every time such programmes and items appear.

Those who watch knowing the story from the inside get frustrated about lack of accuracy and the media obsession with drama and those who get interviewed get annoyed about being asked to constantly simplify and dumb down everything they say – only to have their comments edited down to nothing or completely misrepresented when the show airs..

Quite right too. There’s a lot of rubbish reporting of science that goes on. However, I’m coming at it from the other side of the camera and I think one positive thing to do is give a few clues to scientists being interviewed for TV.

The idea of the game is to get your message across. You want to communicate he excitement of your subject, the new advances that are being made and maybe you want to push your own take on things and correct a few public myths.

Make no mistake, the interviewer wants that too – and the thing they’re most aware of in doing this is that most people are watching with the remote in their hand and nobody’s going to get anything over once the button gets pushed.

Tip 1: know what type of interview you’re doing and how that changes the game:

News interviews
The interviewer is making a 3 minute piece – two minutes of which will probably be them setting the scene, linking the piece and summing it up. They’ll probably have two (opposing) interviewees and that means each gets 30 seconds if that.

Politicians when faced with this scenario have a very clear strategy. They work out what their line is – boil it down to a 10 second sound byte and say that in response to WHATEVER QUESTION IS ASKED.

They don’t care how badly the answer fits the question because the interviewer is going to be cut out anyway.

The aim is to say what YOU want to say. Say it clearly and succinctly using several different variations of language. The editor will then have to find a way to cut around you. They won’t leave you out because they won’t have time to get another interviewee – and anyway why should they? You’re the expert and your take on the subject is important.

Looked at in a slightly more favourable way, this technique means the producer isn’t fumbling around with his or her weak knowledge of the subject trying to pick out the significant moment of your hour long discourse. After all, they’ve only got a couple of hours to shape the piece before the news airs! Know your line and don’t be afraid to stick to it – and you give the producer something to build their work around.

The news reporter has time against them, so will want to come to you having already written their piece. They’ll want you to simply fill in the blanks – no digression, no interesting side issues – just get to the point.

Unfortunately, they’ll have written their idea of the piece using the info they’ve read in whatever other media broke the story, a press release from whoever’s made the discovery that made this item NEWS and if you’re lucky, the background research they’ve done on wikipedia.

You can be pissed off about this or you can work with it. Working with it means making sure that if it was you that wrote the press release you did it properly (and I’ll try to cover this technique some other time). If you didn’t, it means briefing the journalist when they first phone you.

I know that’s hard to do when you’re not expecting a call from CNN asking you about giant dinosaur eating frogs, but the best thing to do is say “yes” to the interview and then call them back 5 minutes later once you’ve gathered your thoughts.

Interviewers will constantly try to get you to simplify. Think about politicians again: economic policy is complicated, politics is complicated. However, when asked for a news quote, politicians have no choice but to boil down the issues into a single sentence that doesn’t just state the facts, but makes it clear why they hold the view they do and what their perspective is.

It’s a hell of a skill, but don’t think that a sound byte is necessarily a dumbing down of an argument:

“Power to the people” is s a sound byte.
“I have a dream” is a sound byte
“thou shalt not kill” is a sound byte.
“e=mc2” is a sound byte

Richard Feynman once said that if you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it.

And that’s a sound byte too.

Above all, be realistic about what you can say in half a minute and try if you can to get in early and get the journalist to understand the issues you think are important before they write their piece to camera!

And if you can be holding something, pointing at something or standing next to something that illustrates the point, do it (as long as it doesn’t have logos, copyrights or trademarks on it)!

II – Documentary interviews

A documentary interview is very different from a news one. You can expect documentary interviewer’s to have done some research. They ought to know the subject (particularly if they’re a small outfit – in which case they may well be editing the footage themselves – or at least have a big hand in shaping the programme).

Documentaries tend to be 50 minutes long and although there’s a structure and a story to them, there’s the opportunity for you to add more, explore the subject a little, and bring out some interesting detail and side issues.

They’re almost always catering for an audience who don’t know that much about the subject, so they’ll need to cover the basics – and it can seem a bit of a waste to bring in the world expert on relativity just to say “e=mc^2” but doing this gives the programme the weight it needs to delve deeper into the issues.

Catering for an audience of non-experts doesn’t mean you won’t be stretched, though – you’ll need to be able to explain often quite complex things very simply and having a few phrases you’ve worked out before hand can be very helpful (try to get a list of questions ahead of time – but don’t expect the interviewer to stick to them).

Documentaries do like to be able to drop the odd factoid in “the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was about the size of Manhattan” why does that matter? It gives “colour” it invites comparison (which is always good – letting the audience ‘see’ the subject in terms they’re used to). It also allows the editor to drop in a piece of stock footage of a plane ride over Manhattan over your words – thus reducing the “talking heads” quota of the programme, adding some expensive looking action, and getting you off the screen for a few seconds so they can cut out any ums and errs without causing a jump in the picture.

What goes wrong with documentaries between the initial good idea and the screen:

1) Somebody’s gone to a TV company with an idea which has then been mashed, destroyed and dumbed down by a series of TV executives until there’s almost nothing left but a shell decorated by glitter (i.e. it’s a thinly veiled excuse to stage a fight between robot dinosaurs – or an attempt to claim that an area of physics which even its researchers don’t think of as anything but a bit of fun is in fact definitely going to give us time travel within a couple of years).

2) Big productions tend to cost a lot of money, and involve a lot of people. It becomes a troop moving exercise rather than an exploration. The researcher has compiled a set of notes which the writer has skim read and the narrator never sees. The interviewer is briefed by the Producer who knows what story they want to tell, but has lots of other people on his back only one of which is the researcher. By the time the interviewer gets to you the documentary has already been written and all they want from you is to fill in the gaps in the narration. In fact they’d be a lot happier to simply give you a script so even though you’re the expert, you end up being cajoled into trotting out a lot of old-hat stuff which everyone knew anyway because you have effectively had your lines written for you by a committee of people who know nothing about the subject, and just think it’d be a good idea to make a programme that they think would appeal to a bunch of other people who they’ve never met and don’t have much respect for.

3) Science moves on faster than programme making. In the BBC’s walking with monsters, one major storyline was based on a fossil of a giant spider the size of a human head. Half way through making the programme, news surfaced that somebody had re-examined the fossil and found it to be a different creature entirely. There never was a giant spider. However, the programme had already written its script. The animators were already working on the spider and the backgrounds had already been shot and the programme already had a slot to fill. So much money had gone into it and so much time invested that nobody could stop the BBC machine. The result is that a new species has been created – and as the media copies constantly from other media – it can never now be wiped out.

4) Repetition. A great way to hide a lack of research is to just keep repeating the concept of the programme over and over again in different ways. I just watched a programme about big carnosaurus and basically they spent half an hour telling you that they were big and that they ate meat. The narrator would say it, then a scientist would say it, then the narrator would say it slightly differently and they’d get another scientist in to say the same thing then the narrator would wrap up by summarising what had already been said. By this time the viewer is loosing the will to live. You’d think an hour long show would offer more time, but, no! with an hour long show, you’ve got up to four or five ad breaks – and that means you have to summarize everything at the end of each break and tell the audience what’s going to happen after the break. Then you have to start off the next section by telling them what’s happened so far. If you want to, you can make a programme with no actual content at all.

5) Lack of money. A new group of documentary makers is emerging (and I’m one of them). Instead of making the programme for a named TV channel, they decide they’re so interested in the subject that they make it themselves for whatever money they can (quite possible in this age of cheap camera equipment and computer editing) and hope that once it’s finished they can sell it to a TV channel, or a distributor (who will take it to lots of TV channels). These smaller scale programmes (and I’m including those made for smaller satellite and cable channels too) vary widely between those that eventually end up as Oscar winning cinema experiences (i.e. supersize me) to those that are fit only for youtube. The problem is, you can’t tell which is which apart from by making a judgement about the person making the show. There’s no money involved in these programmes and that means they can’t do an interview about the hunting tactics of a pterosaur while floating above the Serengeti in a hot air balloon.

6) The bear pit. Documentary – in fact TV in general – means drama and drama means conflict. The best and easiest way to illustrate a subject and really get to grips with it is to get two people who have opposing views and get them to argue. Drama fuels storytelling and storytelling is what it’s all about. This is great – until someone decides there isn’t enough drama in the show and you need to artificially create some. Let me give you an example. I’m going to be making a show about theropods (Meat eating dinosaurs). Now I’ve already found an area of conflict – there are two sets of scientists both studying the movement of tyrannosaurs – one says they moved quickly. The other says they moved slowly. Now, I could edit that as a battle between them, but the truth is that one thinks they went at about 25 mph – and that’s as fast as a man, so it’s pretty speedy. The other thinks they went very slowly considering their size and work it out as about 25 mph. In other words, it’s not a real fight – it’s a question of semantics… so I’ve got to be careful to find the drama that’s there without inventing drama that goes nowhere. It’s a tightrope.

What editors hate:

Searching through a long interview trying to work out what is the most important point someone is trying to make.

Interviewees who won’t commit to their own point of view.
Oh, and don’t bother qualifying your comments with “it’s my view that” or “at least that’s what the evidence seems to suggest” – because the editor will only cut those qualifications out anyway.

You’re being asked to set out your stall and shout “5 oranges for a pound” – not bang on about how you’re not really sure tangerines count as oranges and how it’s really the fact that you bought a job lot of apples that has allowed you to make such a generous offer.

So – what does this leave us with?
Well, a good documentary interviewer will want to hear your excitement for the subject (that’s the difference between a good interviewee and a bad one). They’ll want to tease out the reasons why your subject is interesting and they’ll give you the opportunity to broaden and deepen people’s understanding and ignite their interest.

They can only do that if you’re able to put those points in a simple, clear and succinct way. Scientists are cautious by training and tend to want to qualify everything and be objective and dispassionate.

However, be aware that programme makers have the opposite agenda – they need drama, conviction and passion. There’s nothing like someone who really cares about what they’re doing and can communicate that excitement. Don’t talk as if you’re talking to a child. Talk as if you are one.

Be dramatic- don’t say “there’s a partially healed lesion on one of the upper vertebrae matching therepod dentition patterns.” Say “it got into a fight with a trex and won”

If people are interested enough by what they see and here, they can get on google when the programme ends. The truth is out there – in a way it never has been before – and if you can ignite people’s interest, they will find it.

III – Going live

If you’re being asked to appear live, it’s probably going to be on a news programme. The interviewer will have an earpiece in and will be being constantly prompted about what to ask as well as hearing about the producer’s unhappy love life and how badly he needs a sandwich. You won’t have the luxury of an earpiece unless you’re being interviewed on a live link in which case that’s how the interviewer will talk to you.

The reason I mention the earpiece is that through it, the interviewer will be being constantly reminded of the time (in seconds) that the interview has to run. He’ll be being told to interrupt you if you take more than 15 seconds over an answer or if you say anything that isn’t clear and succinct and he’ll be being constantly offered stupid questions to ask you.

The good news is that the reason you’re there is because a story has broken and you’re either at the centre of it or you know enough about the subject to be able to put it in context for an audience who don’t know a thing about it.

Of course, there’s a third possibility – that you’re there because the people who know about the subject are all in meetings about it or appearing on other news stations and you know nothing and just have to fill in as best you can. If that’s the case, you’ll have some idea how reporters feel most of the time.

Ok –so CERN has just managed to create a miniature black hole in a particle accelerator experiment. You’re a theoretical physicist (which is not the same as an imaginary physicist) and because everyone at CERN is busy (analyzing the results, getting drunk or trying to shut down the black hole before it engulfs the earth) you’ve been brought in to comment live.

You’re going to have heard about the experiment a couple of hours ago, but known it was on the cards for months so you’ll be buzzing with what it means for your field and full of ideas about it. However, once at the studio, you’re going to have to spend most of your interview answering predictable, but dumb questions (i.e. is the black hole going to engulf the earth? – could it be used as a weapon? – what is a black hole anyway?).

Anticipating those questions and answering them quickly not only establishes a base-line of understanding among the viewers, but also gives you a little time to tell the real story – to answer the first “what does this discovery mean?” type question with your line on how our understanding of the world has changed.

A good answer for all concerned starts with “Before we thought that…..”, continues (about 15 seconds later with “Now we know that……” and ends a few seconds after that with “from now on……..”

Because there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of news programming (even among those making news). Everyone thinks that what people want to know is what’s happening right now – right up to the minute. In truth, what people really want is what will happen next. They don’t want yesterday’s news. They don’t even want today’s. They want tomorrow’s news and that’s why experts are invited into the studio to comment live on unfolding stories.

Get that right and you’ll be invited back as a “pundit” to comment on stories which are more and more distant from your area of expertise until you find yourself repeating the same witless nonsense you’ve just heard in the report that precedes your interview back to the interviewee in a slightly different form.

They might even pay you.

Live discussions
A live discussion differs from an interview in that you’re basically being put up against someone with an opposing view with the interviewer chairing it. What’s expected of you is a fight – an easily understood fight in plain English which avoids getting into any detail or going off at a tangent.

The problem here is that you’ll probably already know your opposer – probably even have great respect for them – and you’ll probably also know exactly what their arguments are. The key here is you’re not trying to convince them – you’re trying to make a convincing argument to the viewer.

Christian Darkin