Experts play an essential role in the news cycle, providing knowledge and helping us break down complex topics for our audience.
We saw this firsthand during the pandemic, when health professionals relied on it to update us on new science. But you will find specialists in all areas, especially in business, politics or economics.
Whatever the topic, all the audience really needs is simple questions and answers. Instead, what we sometimes get are interviewers with inferiority complexes and interviewees with oversized egos. Both scenarios leave audiences less informed.
We looked at how we can tackle both of these issues in a recent episode of the Journalism.co.uk podcast and spoke to Nick Huber, a journalist and consultant with over two decades of experience. As a regular writer for The Financial Timeshe himself has become a specialist in many tech areas, such as artificial intelligence or cloud computing – where he has to speak to experts regularly.
Especially for novice journalists, interviewing experts can put you in a position where you feel overwhelmed or insecure.
It can evoke emotions associated with an inferiority complex (feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, especially towards the expert) or imposter syndrome (fear of being exposed as an idiot or a fraud).
The fear of embarrassment is real. And the resulting power is that these interviews can be viewed more as a chance to impress your guest or gain their respect. But that would ignore the priority: your audience.
“Experts should know a lot more than you – that’s why you interview them. Your art as a journalist is to filter out the really useful information or comments,” says Huber.
Still, a lack of trust can lead to being gullible to experts and allowing them to speak unchallenged. That leaves only holes and ambiguities in your story. Here’s what you can do to keep your nerves:
Set parameters. It may be helpful to provide a high-level outline of the interview beforehand, where appropriate. This is especially useful for complicated topics or when you need a very specific insight. It helps organize your own thoughts and manage expectations with your interlocutor.
Ask simple, open-ended questions. Don’t overcompensate with confusing and complicated questions. Keep your questions short and sweet.
Follow up. A common problem with interviewees is that they automatically speak in general terms. Before moving on to your next question, press them for details and ask them to provide examples.
Avoid letting her ramble on. When they digress (and yes, even experts do), don’t be afraid to interrupt them. As long as you’re not being rude, it shouldn’t be a problem. Experts tend to give lengthy answers to easy questions, so save them or take good notes for your follow-up.
Be honest. If you don’t understand what they said, there’s no chance you’ll be able to explain it well to your reader. Ask them to explain again until it makes sense to you – some interviewees may have difficulty with this (see section below).
Use counterarguments. “Let’s be the devil’s advocate” or “What critics would say is…” are practical phrases. Use them to get your expert to justify their position or argument.
Remember the 10 percent rule. This is just a rule of thumb, but rarely does anyone get their thoughts fluently summed up in one take. The majority of people will stumble along the way. Good interviewers help experts get there by asking for details and doing research.
Huber says: “It doesn’t matter if they think your questions are stupid – if they think your questions are stupid, you’re asking the right questions.
“After about five years in journalism, I found that a lot of things, including interviews, were starting to fall into place. Now when I do an interview, after about 10 or 15 minutes I have a clear idea of whether I can have enough and that’s the most important thing: instinct.”
Good interview skills don’t always guarantee a good interview. There are two sides to consider, and sometimes your interviewed experts can be prickly characters.
Huber says that in the business and technology sectors, 10 to 20 percent of his respondents have what he calls “expert syndrome.”
“It’s an arrogance and unwillingness to explain things in lay and plain language,” he says.
“It’s also a slight lack of empathy. You’re stuck in this expert silo [within] of their organization – be it a corporation or a public sector – and not challenged much about what they talk about and how they explain things.”
For example, asking simple questions may be met with derision, and interruptions may be perceived as impolite.
While journalists are always concerned about the accessibility of their texts, experts are surrounded by other experts and often don’t think twice about technical jargon. The biggest offenders are young to mid-level professionals who may be unsure of their ability to communicate difficult concepts.
Here’s what you can do to navigate these potential conflicts.
Pre-interview management. Before doing so, explain the other angles you have explored (generally speaking) and what you need to cover with them. Repeat who the intended audience is (emphasize that the general audience will not understand the jargon) and that they must explain themselves clearly. This makes it harder for them to call your questions stupid.
rephrase questions. You can often ask the same question without them realizing it. Try using hypothetical situations they will refer to: “How do you explain this to your customers?”
Ask them to provide analogies. The best interviewees are usually media savvy. But they have a ready arsenal of analogies for complex or abstract concepts. You can get your expert to think, “If this were a car, what would it be? An outdated model or a brand new Tesla?’
Lead with clarification. Interruptions are necessary, otherwise your interlocutor can give long and unclear answers, which are then more difficult for you to decipher. If you need to interrupt them, the easiest way to do so is to summarize what you think they said and give them an opportunity to clarify or correct it.
Man up. Easier said than done, but you may have to work hard. You can always say, “If you want your quotes credited to you in this piece, I need to understand better.”
End the call. There are many more experts in the sea. For particularly difficult interviews, be prepared to end the call and blacklist them.
Huber says: “You may be able to take something away from the interview, but you can also note in your database: Do not ask her again.”
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