How to use guest speakers as reporting resources

May 16 2013

Over the course of two days, the summer STEMwire crew hosted a guest speaker in the news lab, engaged with an educator from a local science museum and participated in a conference call with a STEM initiative collaborator. Each of these interactions produced a wealth of information and interesting ideas, providing context to the current state of STEM education as we prepared to dive into the topic.

One challenging part though was, while we knew a little about the people we were meeting with and had a general idea of what they would speak about, we didn’t quite know enough to go into the discussions with very specific, targeted questions. They were situations that called for attentive listening, follow-up questions and a willingness to elaborate on the part of the speaker. This elaboration, and a willingness to cover the most important themes emerging in STEM education, resulted in some great conversations and issues to ponder.

But we were also left with plenty of interesting information that was repetitive, off-topic or unusable in some other way. The second challenge came from turning 45 minutes to over an hour’s worth of dialogue (from each conversation) into smaller nuggets of information, main points that could be viable story ideas.

While it may seem obvious, the first step to achieving idea consolidation involves taking notes during the talk. I wrote down anything I thought might be relevant later on, but most importantly, anything that surprised me or made me stop and think. It’s likely that if something is interesting or new to you, it could also be interesting to your intended audiences. Having a written record of your experience is essential for later reflection. As you continue to discuss with others and reevaluate your ideas, it becomes harder to maintain a clear and accurate picture of your first impressions.

The second step also happens during the talk—asking those follow-up questions mentioned above. Clarification is key when it comes to simplifying ideas at the end of the day. The less you understand something, the harder it will be to explain to others, and the less valuable it may seem as a result. Asking follow-up questions moves the conversation forward and contributes to increased understanding. Plus, I’ve found, asking questions is one of the best ways to show the speaker you are actively listening and interested in what they’re saying.

Once the conversations with the guests were ended, the STEMwire team held a debriefing session. During this session, we discussed all those main ideas that had stuck out to us before, connected similar themes and explained why we thought they were interesting concepts. This part of the process seems the most important—not only are you reviewing what you just heard, making sense of the information, but you are justifying your opinions aloud. Open dialogue allows for reevaluation and a vetting of information once again—only the most relevant or interesting concepts make it through.

I feel like most of my past reporting experience worked in a more independent fashion, with feedback from my peers coming from the editing stage of the process. It makes much more sense to debrief and discuss thoughts at the beginning of the reporting process, before the writing, and even before the interviews. It allows you to bounce ideas off of your team before digging in too deep—and really, if your fellow journalists aren’t excited about a story idea, why would you subject it to the public?

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