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Ellen Frank

Knowing How Interviewers Think

Posted on August 4, 2008

Ellen Frank (bio) learned how to talk to media by being on the other side of the camera.

Having been on the other side of the camera has been an enormous advantage in learning how to talk to the media about science. After I did my 8-year stint at one station on women's issues, I did another 8-year stint at a second station, reporting on mental health and human behavior and personal relationships. So I learned a lot about how to take our science and communicate it in a way that's accessible by a general audience.

I also learned how a reporter thinks, so when I'm being interviewed by a reporter, I have a good idea about how to express the material that I want to get across in a way that would be accessible to his or her audience. And I also know what it is I want to say and am perfectly willing to ignore the interviewer's questions in order to make the points I want to make. But it's knowing how interviewers think that enables one to do that.

The first question you need to ask yourself is who is the audience. So if I'm talking to a New York Times reporter, whom I know is going to interview seven different people and think about this material because it's not a news story, it's a feature story, is going to think about this material for three or four weeks before writing it up, I will probably give a great more detail. And I know something about the readership of the New York Times.

If I'm talking, pardon me, to a USA Today reporter, whom I know has a deadline at 3:00 this afternoon, I'm going to give a much simpler description, a much more bulleted description of what it is that we're talking about that day.

If I'm doing live television that I know is not going to be edited, I come in with my points prepared. I know what I want to say and sort of damn the questions. I come in knowing that these are the four important points about the study or these are the four important points about the issue at hand and these are the four things I'm going to say, and no matter what the questions are, I'm going to find a way to say those four things.

If I'm doing a longer interview that I know is going to be edited, I never hesitate to stop if I don't like the way I've said something. I'll say, "Wait a minute, can we do that over again?" And just start again because I know that the editor's not going to have any difficulty fixing that. But I'll still come in knowing what are the points I want to say. If I'm doing an edited interview, I'll work especially hard to speak in whole sentences without dependent clauses because I want to make it easy for the editor, and I don't want to make it easy for the editor or reporter to put things together that don't belong together.

So getting a sense of who the reporter is, what's the medium they're writing for or interviewing for, what's the readership or audience of that medium are all very important considerations.


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