Credit: Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash

Experts play an essential role in the news cycle: they provide knowledge and help us break down complex subjects for our audience.

We saw this firsthand during the pandemic, where health experts were relied upon to inform us about emerging science. But you will find specialists in all sectors, especially in the worlds of business, politics or economics.

Whatever the topic, all the audience really needs are simple questions and answers. What we sometimes get instead are interviewers with an inferiority complex and interviewees with too large of an ego. Both scenarios leave the audience less informed.

We looked at how to tackle both of these issues on a recent episode of the podcast, speaking to Nick Huber, a journalist and consultant with more than two decades of experience. As a regular writer for The Financial Times, he has become a specialist himself in many areas of tech, like artificial intelligence or cloud computing - where he regularly has to speak to experts.

Imposter syndrome

For inexperienced journalists especially, interviewing experts can put you in a position where you feel out of your depth or short on confidence.

It can conjure up emotions associated with an inferiority complex (feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, especially compared to the expert) or imposter syndrome (anxiety over being exposed as an idiot or a fraud).

The fear of embarrassment is real. And the resulting force is these interviews can be treated more as a chance to impress your guest or win their respect. But that would be ignoring the priority: your audience.

"Experts should know a lot more than you - that's why you’re interviewing them. Your skill as a journalist is to filter through for the really useful information or comments," says Huber.

Still, a lack of confidence can translate to being credulous with experts and allowing them to speak unchallenged. That will only leave holes and vagueness in your story. Here is what you can do to hold your nerve:

Set parameters. It can help to provide a rough outline of conversation ahead of time, within reason. This is especially useful for complicated subjects or if you require a very specific insight. It helps to organise your own thoughts as welll as manage expectations with your interviewee.

Ask simple, open questions. Do not over-compensate with confusing and elaborate questions. Keep your questions short and to the point.

Follow-up. A regular issue with interviewees is they will automatically speak in general terms. Before moving onto your next question, press them for detail and ask them to provide examples.

Avoid letting them waffle on. If they are going off on a tangent (and yes, even experts do this), do not be afraid to interrupt them. As long as you are not rude, it should not be an issue. Experts are prone to giving lengthy answers to simple questions, so make a point of pulling them up or making good notes for your follow-ups.

Be honest. If you do not understand what they have said, there is no chance you will be able to explain it well to your reader. Ask them to re-explain until it makes sense to you - some interviewees can be difficult about doing this (see below section).

Use counter-arguments. 'Let's be devil's advocate' or 'What critics of this would say is...' are handy stock phrases. Use them to set up your expert to justify their position or argument.

Remember the 10 per cent rule. This is only a rule of thumb, but it is rare for anybody to be able to summarise their thoughts fluently in one take. The majority of people will stumble along the way. Good interviewers help experts get there by prodding and probing for detail.

Huber says: "It doesn’t matter if they think your questions are dumb - if they think your questions are dumb, you're asking the right questions.

"After about five years of working in journalism, I noticed that a lot of things - including interviewing - started to fall into place. Now when I'm doing an interview, after about 10 or 15 minutes I will have a clear idea if I have enough and that's the most important thing: instinct."

'Expert syndrome'

Good interviewing skills do not always guarantee a good interview. There are two sides to factor in, and sometimes your expert interviewees can be prickly characters.

Huber says that in the business and tech sector, 10 to 20 per cent of his interviewees manifest what he calls 'expert syndrome'.

"This is an arrogance and unwillingness to explain things in lay people’s terms and simple language," he says.

"It's also a slight lack of empathy. They’re stuck in this expert silo [within] their organisation - be that a company or public sector - and not challenged much about what they talk about and how they explain things."

For instance, asking simple questions can be met with derision and interruptions can be seen as rude.

While journalists are always concerned about how accessible their writing is, experts are surrounded by other experts and often do not think twice about jargon. The biggest culprits are junior-to-middle-ranking experts who are potentially insecure about their own abilities to communicate difficult concepts.

Here is what you can to do navigate these potential clashes.

Pre-interview management. Explain beforehand the other angles you have explored (generally speaking) and what you need them to cover. Reiterate who the intended audience is (emphasising that general audiences will not understand technical jargon) and they will need to explain themselves clearly. This makes it harder for them to call your questions fatuous.

Reword questions. Often you can ask the same question without them realising it. Try using hypothetical situations they will relate to: 'how do you explain this to your customers?'

Ask them to provide analogies. The best interviewees are usually media trained. But they have a ready-made arsenal of analogies for complex or abstract concepts. You can encourage your expert to think in these terms: 'If this was a car, what would it be? An outdated model or brand new Tesla?'

Lead with clarification. Interruptions are necessary, otherwise your interviewee can provide lengthy, unclear answers which are then harder for you to unpick. If you need to interrupt them, a smooth way of doing this is to summarise what you think they said and give them a chance to clarify or correct it.

Stand your ground. Easier said than done, but you might be required to dig your heels in. You can always say: 'If you want your quotes attributed to you in this piece, I need to understand this better'.

Terminate the call. There are plenty more experts in the sea. For especially difficult interviews, be prepared to end the call and blacklist them.

Huber says: "You might get something from the interview, but in your database, you might also put a note to say: do not interview them again."

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