Building a Career: From bugs to belly buttons – Guest Speaker Dr. Holly Menninger

30 09 2012

If you want an example of a person using multiple life experiences (aka jobs), all of which were not “perfect,” to lead you to a great job/career that makes it all worth it, then Dr. Holly Menninger is the example for you.  She was invited as a guest speaker on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 to our ENG 520 class as the Director of Public Science for the Your Wild Life project.  As part of her job as director, she gets to enthusiastically engage the public, introducing them to glorious scientific knowledge, write, record podcasts, and play with bugs, all of which are passions developed over the beginnings of her career.

What at glance would seem a haphazard transition from Ph.D. in entomology, appearances on CNN (as a bug publicist), to work in science policy, to creating a weekend science radio show/podcast (on a volunteer basis), all have their purpose in allowing Dr. Holly to succeed in her current role as Director of Public Science.  She exudes a passion for bugs, which began early, as she would tell it, but 17-year and 13-year cicadas emerging from the ground to “do their thing” is what launched the transition from pure interest in studying these creatures, to interest in public education of scientific phenomena.  Creating a buzz (pardon the pun) around the emergence of “giant bugs” that make a lot of racket and that could be perceived as the beginning of the apocalypse, if the public was not educated about the natural life cycle of these bugs, was invigorating.  Her excitement about the topic, vicinity to major news outlets, and the fact that her PI was doing Good Morning America the same morning, allowed her to be the perfect “bug guru” for 6 episodes on CNN.  This first major exposure to public, mainstream education was trial by fire for Dr. Holly and from her comments, it seems that this is how she learned the most about how to be the interviewer and interviewee.  A relatively brief stent as a science policy liaison with a side project as a science radio show host showed her that absolutely wanted to follow her passion, educating the public, rather than dealing with the paperwork mess of policy for a career.   Thus the transition into the Your Wild Life project, where she can play with bugs, create podcasts, educate the public, and use the information she gleaned from the science policy job to really influence the lives of the public around Raleigh, and the rest of the country, investigating microbiomes that are a little closer to home than we’d like to imagine, bugs in our homes, bacteria in our belly buttons, and not to mention what lives in our armpits!

She and her comrades strive to make bugs a little less yucky and a lot more educational and exciting for young scientists and other inquiring minds.  The projects they are working on engage citizen scientists to investigate and sample for themselves and contribute to the pool of samples from urban and suburban local areas.  The Your Wild Life team strives to “Explore the biodiversity that lives on us, in us and around us,” so if your game, the participation information is on the groups’ website, yourwildlife.org

The theme of class was interviewing skills for the interviewer and interviewee, as our class is a mix of scientists in the making and Technical Communications students, so we will all probably be on both sides of the coin at one point in our careers or another.  To address this theme, along with telling her wonderfully inspiring story, she gave us tips about being both the interviewer and the interviewee, which I will summarize below:

For the interviewee:

  • Focus on the 5 P’s: Prior Practice Prevents Poor Performance

Think about your main message when approached about an interview, take five minutes to organize your thoughts and get your talking points together.  If you know ahead of time that your story or research is likely to make headlines, do a little preparation to be sure you deftly cover appropriate issues and give the most factual information possible.

  • Stick to no more than three talking points, which emphasize your main message.

Too much information can oftentimes detract and distract from the message that you really want to convey.  The “triangle method” was how Dr. Holly presented graphically the 3 points and a main message mantra.

  • Ask the “Why me?” question.

Knowing why you are a person of interest to be interviewed and what spurred interest in the subject can give you a great head start into knowing what information will be relevant to the interviewer and what may allow you to make the most positive and pertinent press about the issue.

  • Get your facts straight.

Probably the most important tip for the interviewee, this is the way to gain good exposure as an expert, if you misspeak or fudge information because you don’t know the answer, the journalist may not come to you again, because you’re not a reliable source.  The best policy would be to say you don’t know (if you don’t), look up the information, and get back to the interviewer later.  I’m sure most scientists and science writers value accurate reporting of facts at a later time, rather than a quick, inaccurate quotation.  Good punchy facts can also potentially make powerful quotes, so doing your homework and being prepared can make a big difference in getting your message across.

  • Take journalists into the field, it can add ambiance to a story.

There is nothing better than firsthand experience to lend a little spark to a story, not to mention providing photo ops or sound clips.  Dr. Holly’s example of taking a journalist literally into the field, a field of cicadas, surely contributed to later reporting.  She described what the cicadas were like at their time of emergence and that the researchers and journalist were literally shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the bugs chorusing.  What kind of journalist wouldn’t mention that in a story?

  •  Misquotation will happen, just roll with it.

Take the instances of misquotation, which inevitably happen in the transfer of information (think about the childhood game of telephone), something might be misheard or misinterpreted, as a learning experience.  Think about how you could have described it so that the interviewer, next time will fully understand.

You can also use your resources to correct or explain the misquote, linking to the story in your personal blog allows you space to fully explain a statement and communicate why it was wrong or out of context.

We also discussed the fact that if you do get interviewed, it is likely that at some points a quote you provide will not make it past the cutting room floor, don’t take it as a slight; there are absolutely word limits to be made.  Also, it may have been your information that provided the appropriate background to make the story come alive, so use interviews as times to educate, rather than expect big quotations to come out of it.  Being polite and approachable regardless of whether you get a quote or not, may lead to journalists coming back in the future or referring colleagues just because you are a good source.

For the interviewer:

  • There is a fine line between knowing enough to ask intelligent, relevant questions and knowing too much, where questions are too in-depth and you lose the audience.

Most of the time, writing stories and interviewing on subjects that are foreign to you can be easier than subjects that you are intimate with.  Taking a broad base view is more appealing to people who know nothing about a topic, they’re more likely to be able to understand the story if you get at the big picture; whereas,  if you’re already an expert in the field, you make hone in on questions and details that fly way over the head of a lay audience.

  • Send questions ahead of time.

This tip definitely comes with caveats, if you’re trying to catch time sensitive information or get off the cuff comments about a controversial topic, then spontaneous interview is probably the better bet.  However, if you have the freedom to send them ahead of time, then you can have an interviewee that is prepared with great facts and potential quotes.

  • Have more questions prepared than you know you’ll be able to ask.

Nothing is worse than running out of material before the interview is supposed to be over, so being over prepared is key.  Also, feel free to go off script and ask questions that delve in deeper to answers that the interviewee has given, it can give depth to a story and take it somewhere you hadn’t expected.  It also shows you’re listening, which moves us into the next tip.

  •  Listen to the guest.

Is the answer interesting?  Are there any follow-up questions that would be great to fill out your story? Do you need clarification?  Did they actually answer the questions?  These are all questions that couldn’t be answered on the spot if you aren’t actively listening and engaged in what they are saying.  You may also get more passion from the interviewee if you listen rather than robotically go through your list of questions.

  • If the interview doesn’t work out, go to idea #2.

Some people just aren’t naturally enthusiastic or willing to answer questions in an open format, so if you get an interviewee that is a dud, be polite, but don’t be afraid to scrap the material.

Sometimes, you can bring people out of their shells to open up if you ask things unrelated to the core of your interview, ask them about a picture on your desk, or art on the wall, or what their interests are; getting them to loosened up and more comfortable with a more neutral topic can make the flow of the interview better.  And hey, you may learn something fun about the person to throw into your story.

  • Embrace the long, extended, pause.

If there is a lull in conversation or a question than stumps the interviewee, don’t feel the need to fill the void.  Oftentimes, people become uncomfortable with this pause and begin to talk freely just to end it.  This may lead to unsolicited, interesting stories, as well as tidbits of information that the interviewee might have not meant to reveal.

______________

I really feel blessed to have been able to be present in class during these guest lectures.  The science writing community is so open and willing to share great advice and life lessons with newcomers, which you don’t find in many other fields.  I’m sure this information will be of great use in the future, especially when it comes to writing our first formal pieces, which will require extensive interviews.  I also am glad Dr. Holly shared the information about being an interviewee; I will be more than prepared to give an interview, if my research ever sparks a news frenzy.

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4 responses

2 10 2012
aktruj

Hi Megan,

Wow, you took very good notes during Dr. Holly’s guest lecture! I really like how you framed all the information to make it easy to follow, and the diagram you included at the beginning for a visual. Sometimes when there is so much information in a blog post, readers often skim over the middle parts and just read the introduction and conclusion. (I admit that I am guilty of that frequently). You clearly organized your thoughts with the information that Dr. Holly was providing for being an interviewer and an interviewee.

You also did an excellent job of writing a brief biography of Dr. Holly before jumping into the topic of interviewing skills. I especially liked this sentence:

“She and her comrades strive to make bugs a little less yucky and a lot more educational and exciting for young scientists and other inquiring minds.”

It clearly states what Dr. Holly does and is easy for a lay audience to understand because there is not a lot of science jargon. I also smiled when you described bugs being “yucky”, because I immediately identified with that. I know that bugs have a purpose in the environment, and I understand why someone might do research in entomology. But, I still think a lot of insects are “yucky”.

Your reflection at the end was very comforting to read. I too appreciate Dr. Holly’s encouragement about starting a future career as a science communicator or journalism. It is wonderful how supportive the science writing community is to new writers. I expected the world of journalism, like academia, to be a very intimating and competitive area to transition into. Dr. Holly makes it clear that it is a very competitive market to be a freelance science writer, but “veterans” in this field appear to have genuine interest in helping new writers become successful. I wonder if they are “paying it forward” because they remember someone helping them become a successful writer.

– Amanda

3 10 2012
Brandi McElveen

Meghan,

After this lecture on interviewing, it looks like you have one of the essential skills honed perfectly: listening. Having attended Dr. Holly Menninger’s guest lecture on September 25th, I must admit that reading your reflection on her visit made me feel like we were back in the classroom listening to Dr. Menninger speak.

Visually, your blog is really easy to read. I especially am impressed by the inclusion of the “triangle method” message graph. The one thing I would say watch out for is the spacing between sentences. Generally speaking, there should just be one space between sentences.

This is a really great post. The hyperlinks throughout are very helpful as well. I am certainly looking forward to reading more of your posts!

4 10 2012
Holly Menninger

Wow, Meghan! We sure covered a lot of material in class last week – I really enjoyed seeing our class discussion (and my life story!) reflected in your post! Well-done!

11 10 2012
John Diaz

It looks like you were paying very good attention because this article is very detailed. My favorite part of Holly’s talk was listening her method with dealing with radio guests that were a flop. Hearing her talk about the women who brought in her knitted work was hilarious.

Probably the best professional advice I took from her talk was the “three talking points”. I think this is a great method for getting a message across in an interview that you may not have control over the questions.

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