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Talking to the media
I was getting a much-needed haircut last week when I received an email from a BBC producer asking whether I might be able to give a brief interview on the history of ‘slut-shaming’, female chastity, etc.
I’ve been contacted a few times by people wanting me to talk about my research, and my reaction is always the same: Yay! Someone wants to talk to me about my research!
C’mon, who wouldn’t want to be interviewed about their work? It’s fun!
…Ok, yes, it can also be scary. As I mentioned in this post from three years ago, I once declined an invitation to give an interview to the Associated Press about Henry VIII because I was terrified I wouldn’t remember how many wives he’d had.
But if you’re an up-and-coming writer, or an expert in your field, giving an interview to a journalist can be a terrific way to get in front of new audiences and give your work more exposure. And since it’s hard to know what this whole media interview process can look like if you’ve never been through it before, I thought I’d describe how this one went down, since it was pretty typical of how my media experiences have gone in the past.
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To ask you for an interview, a journalist has to be able to find you. Your name needs to come up when they Google key terms for their interview (…oh no…did they find me by Googling ‘slut-shaming’??). And they need to have an easy way of contacting you.
I’ve been contacted several times for interviews over the past decade, and these invitations have almost always come to my personal email inbox. That’s because it’s the inbox to which my personal website directs people, and my personal website is what I use to make sure that I am consistently, easily findable.
So if you want to be contacted for an interview, make yourself visible! Create a website that lays out your professional expertise and experience (having a page titled something like ‘In the Media’ can help to show you’ve dealt with the media in the past). Get active on social media. Try to identify websites where experts with your background or profile can indicate their interest in being interviewed, like Women Also Know History and Women Also Know Stuff (if you know of others, please leave a note in the comments!).
When contacting experts about possible interviews, journalists and producers usually identify themselves, the publication or program with which they’re affiliated, and the topic about which they’d like you to speak. It never hurts to do a little Google search of your own to see what kind of people/publications/programs you might be dealing with, just to check that everything is legit and to decide whether these are people you want to talk to.
While this first email might mention the possibility of an interview, it will usually also ask whether you might be available to chat on the phone about the interview in question. If you want to leap at the opportunity, it’s important to reply promptly. Journalists and producers are working to very tight deadlines, so if they don’t hear back from you within 12-24 hours they may just move on to someone else.
In the case of this recent interview of mine, the producer actually gave me her number and asked whether I might be able to call her that afternoon (a first for me!). We then chatted for a half-hour or so, while she threw out general questions (‘What about examples from the Bible? Is that something you could talk about?’) and typed up my responses in the background.
These first conversations are helpful for everyone involved: they give you a sense of the kind of territory you’d be asked to cover, and they give the journalists/producers a sense of what material you might be able to contribute. Afterward, the journalist or producer will take what they got out of their conversation with you to their colleagues to see whether you might be a good fit for what they want to do.
Sometimes you won’t be (that’s happened to me twice!). Other times, they’ll get the green light to go ahead, in which case you’ll get an ‘official’ invitation to interview with them at a particular time and in a particular place (it could be a studio or some other location, but lots of interviews for radio are conducted online these days).
I really, really, really believe in the power of good preparation, especially for moments when I’ll be expected to respond quickly and relatively coherently to questions. I give a few tips about how to prepare for media interviews here. (I’m so grateful to my wonderful doctoral student for letting me babble myself into coherence over Zoom on interview day, a process that always helps me get my thoughts in order and my words on the tip of my tongue!)
In this case, after that preliminary chat on Tuesday evening, I was told the interview would take place over Zoom on Thursday morning, when I was going to be away in the Swiss Alps. No problem! I added a couple of key books and a pair of headphones to my rucksack. I also asked for a list of topics they’d like me to cover. Lists like these help me to prepare key phrases and examples—everybody loves a good story!
However, things did not go quite as smoothly on this occasion as they have in the past. On Wednesday evening, I received an email informing me that they were still adjusting the ‘focus’ of their program—could I possibly speak with them the following afternoon??
I said that I could, but heard nothing from them until the next morning, 26 minutes before our originally scheduled interview time. Then I got a phonecall from the producer: could I in fact stick with the original interview time after all? And could I be prepared to talk about a few extra bullet points?
I called a halt to the badminton game I’d just started with my son, and dashed upstairs to set everything up.
Thankfully, the interview in question was pre-recorded. This meant that if I or the interview ever needed to stop and start over, it wouldn’t be a problem. And we did, once or twice! On these occasions, we simply indicated we wanted to start again, left a bit of dead air while we collected our thoughts, and launched back into it.
At one point, my connection dropped and I had to reconnect to Zoom. Thankfully I was able to do so relatively quickly, and I started back where I left off. (Whenever possible, make sure your internet connection is stable!)
All told, the interview took a little over a half-hour. We covered some of the expected topics. Others never got discussed. And one or two unexpected topics popped up during our conversation. It happens!
On the airwaves!
The turnaround time for this interview was fast: a colleague emailed me on Friday to say that she was listening to me while puttering away in her kitchen!
I still haven’t given the whole thing a listen, but if you’re interested in the topic of ‘Counting Sexual Partners’, you can listen to that episode of the BBC Radio 4 ‘AntiSocial’ podcast with Adam Fleming right here!
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