Thursday, September 16, 2010

Guest Blogger Jennifer Gresham on The Alien Interview: How to Get a Scientist to Speak Human

Jennifer Gresham is a poet and the author of the popular blog Everyday Bright, focused on personal and professional fulfillment (and occasionally fascinating science). She also holds a PhD in biochemistry, and has had a long career in the Air Force, where she continues to work as a reservist and consultant. Her duties have often included writing, and along the way, she's developed an ear for a good scientist interview.

Please welcome Jennifer Gresham.

In my first job as the head of an optical microscopy group, my supervisor asked me to attend a meeting at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Despite listening very hard and asking a few basic questions of those near me, I couldn't even determine the topic of the discussion, much less the recommendations. These were scientists talking about what they did day-in and day-out, but to me, the words were completely alien. I drove home in tears.

Back in February of this year, the New York Times reported that based on their own metrics, readers were more likely to share articles about science than almost any other topic. As writers, that's good news, because there's so much exciting science that goes unreported. But even if you only write fiction, knowing the details behind the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria on gym floor mats or how inspectors catch nuclear proliferators can open up novel story lines your readers will love.

The tricky part is not finding scientists willing to talk to you, but getting them to talk intelligibly.

When I was ultimately tapped to be the Chief of Corporate Communications for the Air Force Research Lab, I knew what I was up against. I'd have to devise questions as elegantly as a scientist’s experiment if I wanted good results. Here are a few tips I picked up along the way to transform even the most alien interviews into an engaging conversation:

- Play “dumb”: Many interviewers prep their subjects by asking them to “speak as if they were chatting with their grandmother.” Unfortunately, this often only results in them spelling out acronyms. Asking your subjects dumb questions early in an interview can release your subjects from what Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book Made To Stick, refer to as the "curse of knowledge." I once interviewed a scientist who was working to enable hypersonic flight. After two questions where I'd gotten a lot of talk about scramjets and an absence of oxidizers, I interrupted to ask "What does 'hypersonic flight' really mean anyway?" He was taken aback (since I was in the Air Force), but his answers after that were, thankfully, more geared towards the lay person.

- Begin with the personal: I spent a lot of time with tribologists, whose far-reaching work on lubricants for everything from satellites to fighter jets was often overlooked by the mainstream media. But the best story came when I happened to ask the lead scientist, who had immigrated to the US from Russia, about his experiences in graduate school. He told me a fascinating story of how he transformed his skills in coating technology to produce beautifully colored spoons and glassware to support his family after the fall of the USSR, and ultimately escape the mob. I couldn't believe I'd never thought to ask about his history in the four years I'd been working with him. Now I try to begin with these questions to add the more interesting human element from the get go.

- Break the rules: Most writers don’t share their questions with their subjects prior to an interview for fear of getting stilted, stock answers. But when inquiring about subjects that may extend well beyond what you learned in your high school science class, it’s also easy to miss the best material simply because you don’t know to ask about it. John Ohab, whose popular blog Armed with Science began as a podcast, found that allowing his interview subjects to submit five questions they wanted to answer reduced stress and made them more comfortable. For the writer, these answers likely won’t be quotable gems, but they will provide insight into what the subject feels are the most important and interesting points—providing a platform you can jump from with your own questions. Just be sure your subject isn’t guessing as to the purpose of the interview, or the submitted questions might be too unrelated to be useful.

- Ask "so what" until you get the right answer: Most scientists understand the value of their work in the context of the scientific community, not society, so it can be hard to pull out the impact (and interest) of their work. It might feel a little rude, but don't be afraid to ask your subjects why you should care about their results. I once invited a young scientist at an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle conference to tell me about his work. He focused on the resolution benefits of a new camera he helped develop. I asked him, “So what? What will intelligence personnel do with the improved resolution?” To him, better resolution was simply…better. It wasn’t until we’d gone through this kind of exchange five times that he revealed the real game-changer was the weight savings, which allowed the Air Force to collect more data by adding more sensors.

Writing about science can be intimidating, and while you may never need to write a pure science piece, the time may come when you will want to talk to a scientist about something you want to incorporate into your work. If you follow these tips, you can at least be confident you won't drive home in tears--and your readers won't be shedding any from boredom.


Rona Maynard said...

Well said! I could have used this unconventional wisdom when I was a young journalist who didn't know much about science and felt cowed by people in lab coats.

Jennifer Gresham said...

Glad this resonated with you. It's easy to get intimidated by that degree, but really, I found most scientists wanted to be helpful but just didn't know how. So it's really a win-win!

Alyssa C. said...

I deal with something similar to this on a daily basis, since I write for an association about medical imaging. My knowledge doesn't extend much farther than "x-rays" and "ultrasound," but I'm expected to write more in depth because our members are docs who are very intelligent! These are great tips I will try out - especially asking "so what?" until I get a comprehensible answer! :)

Jennifer Gresham said...

Exactly! More and more medical companies are outsourcing their copywriting needs, so I'm sure you're not alone. Let me know how these work for you, and if there's anything I can do to help further, don't hesitate to ask!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I love the title and the valuable tips within. Beginning with the personal and asking ‘so what’ are the two most important aspects, I think.

Jennifer Gresham said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I like to give a range of tips, because what works with one subject may not work with another. But if you utilize all these tips in one interview, you're almost guaranteed to get something you can use.

John O said...

Start with the personal -- great advice. Scientists have some of the most interesting stories that provide much needed context to their work.

Thanks for mentioning Armed with Science!