How to Interview Scientists and Other People Who Are Smarter Than You (Without Feeling Like a Complete Idiot)

colorful-question-mark1As someone who’s been lucky enough to interview some of the most distinguished scientists, doctors and engineers in the world, I can tell you from personal experience that when you’re starting out, it can be incredibly intimidating. Like most folks in public relations, communications and marketing, I don’t have a STEM degree, much less a PhD or experience working in a lab. But over time I’ve learned how to effectively interview folks who are much smarter than me—and earn their respect while doing it. Here’s how.

1) Google Your Fingers Off

Both before and after the interview, do a thorough Google search on the person you’re interviewing and their area of expertise. Google Scholar is a great resource for finding academic papers—make sure you at least read the abstracts of your interviewee’s most recent publications.  Surprisingly, Wikipedia can also be a good resource—not so much the Wiki articles themselves, but the list of citations at the bottom of the article pages can lead you to valuable information. You likely won’t understand a lot of what you read but it will give you a launching point for asking good questions during the initial interview as well as help you when you’re writing your first draft and prepping follow-up questions.

2) Give Yourself Permission to Ask Stupid Questions…

It can be tempting to go into an interview and try to bluff an understanding of the subject matter (no one likes feeling ignorant). But remember, you’re serving as a proxy for the audience, so your ignorance is actually an asset—if you don’t understand something, the reader or viewer won’t understand either. Use your lack of knowledge as a tool that lets you drill down to the nugget of information that will engage and excite people just like you.

3) But Don’t Undersell Yourself and Your Skills

Remember: you may not know much about mitochondrial DNA or virtual machines but I guarantee you know more about producing kick-ass written and visual content than the person you’re interviewing.  Keep your head up during the conversation no matter how lost you may feel and revel later when you show your final draft to your interviewee and she says, “Wow, you did a great job.”

4)  Record Your Interviews

Trust me, you won’t know half the words being tossed around by the person you’re interviewing and you don’t want to be in the position of staring at your notes with no idea of what you’ve scribbled down and no way to Google because you got it so wrong (ask me how I know this). Recording your interview allows you to go back, review unfamiliar terms, do some internet research and if necessary, contact the researcher with follow up questions.

My favorite tool: the Livescribe pen, which records your interview while you’re writing notes. Later, you can tap the pen to any word on the page and it will play back the portion of the interview that corresponds to your notes. Like magic—and invaluable when you’re going through your notes on a deadline.

5) Assume You’ll Need to Follow Up Once or Twice (or Three or Four Times…)

It’s pretty much impossible for a layperson to absorb and understand everything they need to know about a technical topic from a single interview. While we all operate under the constraints of tight deadlines, try to build enough time into your project plan to allow for multiple interviews and revisions. Better to go back and ask one or two more questions than to rush something into production and suffer acute embarrassment for getting a key fact spectacularly wrong.

6) Make Sure the Subject Reviews Your Draft

I’m amazed by how many organizations will put out press releases, magazine articles, blog posts and other pieces without giving the interviewee a chance to review the copy. While you are the communication expert, it’s their work you’re writing about and you have to give them the final say in how it’s presented (this doesn’t apply to journalists, who are ethically constrained from getting their subjects’ approval). You don’t want to become THAT person—the person who got the interviewee’s research all wrong, the one they’ll never speak to again.

About Alisa

I'm a writer, blogger and social media specialist with nearly 15 years experience in medical and science writing for organizations that include Caltech and UCLA, as well as non-profit fundraising and political organizing. I specialize in making complex information clear and compelling. Learn more about my work here