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Writing alone does not guarantee terrific storytelling.

You need to able to dig out that contrarian twist, anecdote or perhaps even failure that sets the stage for later success.

Which brings us to the interview.

Tom McHale, our director of client services based in Beijing, tackles this very subject — emphasizing scientific sources — drawing from years of experience as a journalist (Electronic Business, Computerworld, EDN Asia, South China Morning Post, to name a few).

I continue to believe interviewing expertise is often undervalued in the business world, so I appreciate Tom’s perspective.

Tom McHale

By Tom McHale
Hoffman China (Beijing)

For journalists and PR folk, there is nothing quite like interviewing a scientist.

It’s a conversation that at times can feel more like an exercise in translation than a business Q&A. As a reporter, I prepared for the worst as these encounters often ended with me overwhelmed by an avalanche of scientific fact and references to studies I didn’t have the time or interest to track down. During 20 years as a reporter, I often faced scarcely concealed hostility from scientists who felt the meeting was simply a waste of time.

That hostility is not surprising, however.

Many researchers inhabit a closed world, tracking a narrow field of study and talking for the most part with colleagues in the same or related disciplines. Even if they teach at a university, they may be more used to lecturing than to conversation. The reporter is an outsider who threatens to misinterpret the researcher’s work to the public with disastrous consequences.

Like most interviews, conversations with scientists are a bit of a fishing expedition. It’s best to allocate a bit of extra time for the meeting if possible. Give them line to run a bit as you may spend much of the meeting listening to someone unaccustomed to being interrupted, and who has little interest in your questions.

Given room to stretch out in the conversation, and a few warm up questions, however, the reporter may discover a spellbinding human story describing anything from how the researcher landed in that particular field of inquiry, or how unintended results of one study opened a new horizon of research or even an important breakthrough in another field.

Take a recent conversation with a Bell Labs researcher who answered questions with descriptions of development projects that seemed drab, grey and lifeless.

The interview was going nowhere while I struggled not to just say thanks and goodbye.  I soldiered on to try to uncover a human face for the story – a funny anecdote, challenges faced and resolved, human problems, and research triumphs with little hope of success.

Finally, after my questions poked into a number of blind alleys, the researcher said, “You all know how we got the idea for lightRadio right?”

No, in fact I had no idea.

That’s when he began telling a compelling story of how the head of his group is a woodworker in his spare time at home. One Friday he left deep in thought about the new wireless technology design that would create smaller cell areas. Monday he returned with a block of wood the size of a rubix cube and a challenge:  the block of wood was the new form factor for the small cell design that would encompass both basestation and antenna. The challenge was eventually met and lightRadio unveiled this year with commercial deployment expected in summer 2012.

It’s not just scientists; for reporters who cover the electronics sector, this is a story that may sound familiar to reporters who routinely interview engineers.

Success in interviewing scientists boils down to clearly setting the stage, explain the aims of your conversation in a much more explicit manner than a marketer would need or expect. Explain why you need to tease out the cost benefits for customers, technology and product differentiation details, dates, but most of all the human back story that details challenges faced, initial failures, problems solved, team interaction, partner information, anything  that delivers a compelling story while delivering the key messages.

The good news is that in these hard economic times, scientists are increasingly aware that they need to market their work and themselves to keep their research on track.

Note: If you enjoyed this post, the human bot identified “Five Interviewing Techniques For Corporate Storytelling” as another post worth the click.


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