How to be interviewed for
TV – a guide for scientists.
I – The news
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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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Issue 31: July 2008
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