Interview with a subject matter expert

How to interview a scientist or a medical expert

How to interview a scientist or a medical expert

A subject matter expert interview is usually a short article, and one of the most common tasks in science journalism, which can be adopted by anyone who is interested in spreading meaningful ideas. It can be published as a stand alone 500-600 words Q&A article, or be part of a lengthier investigation sharing the perspective of various experts documented in feature article. Preparing and conducting an interview is a skills that  requires background research and planning. 

Preparing for an interview

The first step in setting up an interview is to find a good interviewee: someone who have a story to tell, or interesting work to share. A good speaker is able to provide context and background information, an informed perspective on the topic in question and ideas on how to approach the story. Choose someone who will interest your audience. Listen to this podcast interview with Prof. Kyle Greenwalt, Associate Professor of Teacher Education, Michigan State University, on the art of home schooling  as a successful example. 

There are many advantages to interviewing a subject matter expert. The audience trusts a person who demonstrates expertise — this creates confidence in the organisation and scientific study you are discussing. The journalist also benefits from real-time interviews rather than email Q&As because they have more control over the situation. Gaining the interviewee\’s confidence, or simply reading the situation in the moment, allows the interviewer to ask questions that might not have worked in a written exchange. 

There can also be disadvantages to this format of scientific dissemination. Interviews can be time-consuming and the quality of responses can vary. Sometimes an interviewee will want to edit their answers or will self-edit their responses based on the interviewer\’s reaction. If the subject matter is controversial, the expert may wish to remain anonymous, which can pose a problem for podcast and video interviews and hinder the verification of information.

Do your own research beforehand

A well-prepared interviewer inspires confidence in their subject. Specifically, it is essential to know the following:

  • The subject’s professional background
  • Their past, current and future research projects
  • New ideas and research projects they wish to share
  • Basic background information on the topic of the interview

Prepare a list of questions 

Questions will give the interview structure, help you remember the points you want to cover, and ensure you make the most of your time. Ask questions based on the background research done on the person and topic. Include some open-ended questions to keep the discussion flowing and to encourage your interviewee to express their opinions — for example, phrases such as “Tell me more about that?” and “What was your impression, given your experience?”.

List of equipment required for an interview? 

  • A notebook or a computer
  • A tape recorder (optional but useful for confirming quotes)
  • A video camera (optional, depending on the interview format)
  • A camera (optional)
  • An open mind
  • Active listening skills and the ability to follow up on interesting responses
  • Solid background research on the interviewee and topic

What to do during an interview

It is always preferable to conduct an interview in person (or at least over video call) – Up to 55% of communication is non-verbal and this can add an extra layer of insight when reviewing answers. 

Inform the interviewee of  the target audience so they can adjust their tone, level of language and choice of words accordingly. They won’t address young adult school-leavers, citizen scientists or their specialist peers in the same way.

Encourage answers from interviewees

Try to make your source comfortable and establish a rapport; this will encourage spontaneous and relaxed answers and make the interview much easier (see this interview with the editor of Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia for a good example). To put them at ease, try the following:

  • Choose a good location if you’re meeting in person – ensure you have enough privacy to talk freely and that noise levels in the venue will not interfere with recordings
  • Be professional and impartial but natural and conversational, allowing them time to speak and listening carefully to their answers
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, joke with the interviewee to establish a friendly relationship and show you understand their situation

Soft questions

These are non-challenging questions designed to create a relaxed atmosphere and get the interviewee talking. See this interview with Dr. Pablo Denis as an example. Tough questions should be kept for the later stage of the interview. Keep the conversation moving and avoid mechanically reading or reciting questions. Maintain eye contact and signal that their message is getting across  by responding with follow-up questions that build on their answers.

Points to remember

Leave room for discovery. Abandon any preconceived notions on how to write the story or what they will say. Do not force your interviewee along a set route; instead, go into the meeting with curiosity and leave room for the story to unfold, as in this interview with the editors of ESE. Given space and thinking time, interviewers are more likely to offer interesting insights.

Keep the interview on track

It’s important to balance the needs of the interviewee and the reader. If the expert gives vague answers, misses points of interest, or veers repeatedly from the topic of conversation, the role of the interviewer is to gently but firmly steer the interview back on course. They need to ask the questions again in a slightly different way, re-framing without repeating to encourage, rather than force, a good response.

Concluding the interview

Check with your source that the key messages are clear and that the discussion did not miss or misunderstood some points covered. Ask for recommendations for other sources to consult. Take time to revisit any questions that were fully answered and ask for clarification if an answer is unclear.

Taping or note-taking? 

In an interview it is impossible to write down every word. It\’s not always obvious at the moment which details will prove critical and which can be ignored. Recording an interview is the obvious solution to this problem. But this technique is not always acceptable or appropriate for the circumstances. Always ask for permission to record, and always take notes, even when recording the conversation. This helps provide a backup in case of any technical issues arising during the recording. It also allows adding details observed at the time. The recording also gives an opportunity to adapt the content into a podcast format.

After the interview

After collecting the raw information, the way to turn the interview into a  story is to follow a fil rouge. That is, identify the running thread or storyline that gives the interview coherence from one answer to the next.

Create an outline to contextualize the interview for the reader. For example:

  • Why interviewed this specific expert
  • The source’s experience in the relevant topic/discipline
  • The most interesting thing learned
  • The most surprising thing learned
  • Key quotes and their significance in the context of the storyline

Need more direction in conducting an interview?

SciencePOD’s interviewers and writers craft professional content from expert interviews. Find out how to captivate any audience through skilled and qualified digital assets. 

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