How I learned to love talking to the media

Okay, I’ll be honest. I don’t LOVE talking to the media. But I have learned to stop hating it, worrying about it, and avoiding it. I might go so far as to say… I like it?

Many academics aren’t comfortable talking about their work in public venues, including in media interviews and on podcasts. It’s well known that women decline a lot of media requests, leading to a gender imbalance in whose perspectives are represented. Few of us receive any training in this regard. Yet we’re also made to feel guilty if we don’t engage in public communication about our research.

So what’s the secret?

Are you ready? The secret is: do it. Do it as much as possible. Say yes to every request (every legit request). Get so used to it that it feels like a normal part of your job. The more you do it, the easier it is.

How did I stumble onto this deep, sage knowledge? It started out slowly, with a commitment to saying yes to media requests to speak about current issues. Unless I’m unavailable or know of someone better suited (especially a member of a more affected or marginalized group), I say yes to any request vaguely within my areas of expertise. What I’ve learned is that the reporter doesn’t want a deep dive or a trove of statistics. They just want a few sentences about the issue from someone with the title of professor. Reporters spend their days trying to get people to talk to them. They’re usually quite grateful to the person who finally says yes!

Getting comfortable talking about my own research has been a longer journey. But since my book Feminist City came out, I’ve been asked to talk to everyone from the BBC to the grad student hosting a podcast out of his Cambridge dorm room. It’s been a crash course in translating my book into sound bytes and fun conversational tidbits.

Do you have any actual advice here?

All right, here are a few more practical tidbits of advice based on what I’ve learned.

  • Over-preparation is not necessary. If you get questions ahead of time, go ahead and jot a few notes if you want, but don’t type up full answers to each question.
  • For a live interview or an interview for a news article, keep your answers short.
  • If it’s a live interview with a short timeline, like a radio show, prepare a short list of “talking points” to help keep yourself on track.
  • Modulate your voice. Don’t speak in a monotone.
  • Present your research as a story: I noticed x, was fascinated by it because of y, realized we needed to more, found z.
  • Always be able to answer the question: why should anyone care? In other words, why does this matter?
  • Sounding excited and passionate about your work goes a long way.
  • If you’re not sure how to answer the question, answer with something adjacent: “Your question makes me think about x…”.
  • You might need to pivot from semi-hostile questions (although in my experience, these are rare). Try: “Good question, but I think the real/bigger/more important issue is…”.

Practice leads to confidence

Ultimately, the only way to improve your media skills is to practice them. Over time, it will feel less terrifying and might even be enjoyable! And if you absolutely must do your homework, here are a few resources to check out. Happy media talking!!