How To Interview Engineers, Scientists, and Other Ridiculously Smart People
I think we writers are incredibly lucky. We have a job where we are paid to learn new and fascinating things.
Several times a week, I get to interview some of the most interesting people in the world—scientists, engineers, roboticists, and other people who make things. Often, I don’t really know much about the specific topics I am calling them about. I couldn’t engineer my way out of a paper bag. I don’t have the patience to be a scientist, and I wouldn’t know an Arduino board if it smacked me in the head.
When I started out, my ignorance was intimidating. I assumed these smart people I was going to interview for an article would be annoyed with me when it became evidently clear I was woefully ignorant. But that’s not at all what happened.
I soon found out that scientists and engineers are some of the nicest people in the world. They are patient, kind, and they are great teachers. If you ask the right questions, they are also some of the best storytellers out there. Once you get them talking, it’s hard to get them to stop. For a writer, that’s a good thing.
Think about it. Imagine you’re at a cocktail party and you introduce yourself to two people. One says he climbed Mount Everest five times. The other says she’s an engineer for a plumbing manufacturer. Most people will immediately start asking questions of the intrepid mountain climber. It’s okay; the engineer is used to this. She knows she didn’t stand a chance.
Here’s the thing though. She’s fascinating and what she does is as interesting as that mountain climber. Had you asked the right questions, she might tell you stories about how prison inmates use the plumbing system to pass contraband and communicate with other inmates. There are a lot of great stories about the plumbing systems in prisons. I know, because I’ve talked to the engineers and people who work with them.
I will admit, it’s sometimes hard to get these people to tell their stories. They are so used to seeing the glazed look that passes over their listener’s face as soon as they start talking that they’ve learned to keep their work to themselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told by an interviewee, “There’s nothing really interesting about this.” Either that or they launch into specifics that are so far over my head; they may as well be speaking another language.
How Do You Make Sense of the Technicalities?
That technical detail can be tricky to understand enough so that I can write about it. Here’s what I do when I don’t understand something.
• I repeat back to them what they are telling me as I understand it. This can be a painstaking process—for me and the poor scientist or engineer. However, I found that the expert I’m speaking to is usually happy to educate me. They want me to understand. I suspect this has something to do with the simple fact they have an audience who is interested enough in what they do and who wants to understand it. It could also be because the media often grossly misinterpret their work. (See headline Scientist Discover [insert common food item or beverage here] Cures Cancer.)
• I’m not afraid to ask a “stupid” question. I’m not afraid to ask the question again and again until I understand what they are telling me. Here’s the thing. They get that they are ridiculously smart and they don’t expect me to know what they know. Otherwise, I’d be doing what they do instead of writing about it.
• I ask them to use a metaphor to illustrate what they are trying to explain to me. Not only will I understand what they are saying, but I end up with material that will help my reader understand as well.
• I know that when I leave the interview, I will be confident that I understand what they were talking about. That is until I start writing. That’s when I find out I know less than I did before I talked to them. I don’t hesitate to call them back and ask my questions again. I simply tell them, “I thought I understood this, but I seem to have entered the ‘a little knowledge is dangerous’ zone.’ Can you explain this part to me again?”
• I have them fact check what I wrote. I’m not breaking any rules; I’m just checking to make sure I got my facts right in my explanation. They will want to change everything and make it extremely technical, but I push back and ask, is what I wrote true or accurate? If it is, I keep it. If it’s not, I change it but keep it understandable.
Getting Engineers and Scientists To Open Up
Every now and again you find the perfect interviewee, and they agree to speak to you. But when you get on the phone, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get them to open up. It is so important that you do get them talking because some of your best material will come from a good back and forth. Otherwise, your piece will be nothing but facts and figures, and it will lack an actual story.
Here are questions I ask when I hit that brick wall and need to get them talking.
• What do you wish people understood about what you do, or what do you think they don’t understand?
I asked this of a scientist who worked for a pharmaceutical company, and she said, everyone thinks we just want to make money. She then went on to talk about her passion for what she did, and that sparked a whole conversation about how she got into her career and some of the struggles around that.
• What frustrates you the most about what you are working on?
This is another reason why I love talking to scientists and engineers. They are intimately familiar with failure, and it does not cause them shame. Failure is part of their job description. Perhaps not quite as rewarding as finding a solution, but a day when they can definitively say an approach will not work is a damn fine day.
I also tap into interviewing advice Ira Glass gave on a podcast (I’m sorry, I cannot remember which one). Questions he suggested are:
• How did you think things would go before you started? How did things actually work out?
• What results did you think you’d see before you started. What were the actual results?
The next time you find yourself being overwhelmed by imposter syndrome, and you are wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, just take a deep breath and pull out the above questions. You also may find comfort in these brilliant words from Matt Apuzzo, a journalist for the New York Times, when talking about how he managed to break a big story by calling up a source and getting them to talk.
“That’s the three-step process to doing journalism. You talk to people, write down what they say, and then tell others,” said Apuzzo.
See, piece of cake!