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Interviewing experts: Turns out, it's an art

Updated: Mar 28, 2022

Interviewing experts--especially the outstandingly gifted ones, the movers and shakers in their respective fields--can be really intimidating.

After all, they live rarefied professional lives and don't often talk about their work with ordinary people. They work on high-level projects in fast-paced, challenging environments surrounded by brilliant and dedicated people. Often, because they're so close to their work, they don't realize how special it is. So, when you interview them, it's important to be careful to probe just enough to get them to reveal their unique experiences (without annoying them), while you also manage to get that all-important "angle" for your story.

As with anything, that takes preparation. It's important to do your homework, finding out as much as you can about your subject prior to the actual interview. In fact, that's one of four "interviewing principles" provided by the Columbia University School of Journalism. Another recommendation is to establish a relationship with the subject. Often, providing an advance set of questions before the interview can get the relationship started while also helping the subject understand what they can expect. Once you're talking, it often helps to establish a conversational tone at the beginning of the interview. (This is something I need to get better at!)

Then, when you get to the meat of the interview, it's important to ask openended questions, encouraging the subject to provide more detail and expand on the topic and to follow-up each answer for a deeper dive, if you can. (That's the gentle probing that can often yield surprising results.) Above all, listen attentively.

I love learning about new subjects, and the more complex the better. But establishing a precisely perfect connection with the subject matter expert (SME) has always been a challenge for me. I think I'm getting better, but I still probably have a long way to go.

Even so, over the years, I've had the opportunity to chat with some pretty brilliant healthcare professionals. Recently, I got to chat with a breast cancer specialist for an article in The Catalyst, a magazine published by the Foundation office at the Baylor Scott & White Health system in Texas. As I spoke with Dr. Cara Govednik, a surgeon who works with breast cancer patients in Waco, she revealed that while, of course, her first priority is curing the cancer, she has also been working on some pretty interesting ways to keep her patients looking good. One of those is a new procedure called a nipple-sparing mastectomy, a new technique that removes the breast tissue while leaving the skin intact. That's a major departure from the traditional procedure, which removed the nipple and some surrounding skin. An even more dramatic innovation that she's working on is seed localization, which actually removes the tumor while leaving the breast intact.

Needless to say, an engaging--and positive--angle quickly emerged from our chat. In lucky cases like that, when you've got your angle and some good, engaging quotes from the subject, it's simply a matter of doing a little more research on the topic so you can sound informed and add value to your piece.

Interviewing experts--especially the ones that aren't particularly forthcoming--can be a problem. Anybody have any tips for getting those special people to talk?

I'll never be Barbara Walters, but I hope to get better at talking with experts as I have the chance to do it more often. I'm sure there are more tips that would help. Do you have any to share?

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