Technology is a fascinating, changing story but it’s not always easy to understand. That’s something to keep front-of-mind before sitting down with a reporter.
The other thing to remember is that many – maybe most? – of the tech writers you’re going to meet aren’t tech experts. That doesn’t mean they can’t grasp the nuances of your new product. But don’t make blithe assumptions. Here’s why.
Most journalists who wind up reporting on technology come to the job with liberal arts backgrounds. Nothing particularly untoward about that. In fact, as a profession, journalism prides itself on practitioners with a knack for quickly assembling disparate pieces of information into a coherent narrative – under extreme deadline pressure.
Of course, taking courses in university on everything from Stoic philosophy to Mesoamerican art may not sound like much help understanding Software as a Service. It isn’t. But that training does help develop an intellectual approach for tackling big, unfamiliar concepts. So, when a generalist gets hired to write about technology, they need to be quick studies and get up to speed. It’s up to them to learn the terrain, develop sources, ask smart questions and read as much as possible to tackle whatever comes their way.
The formula has held up over the decades. Journalists are rarely subject experts in most things we write about, at least in the beginning. Legions of accomplished tech reporters like Walt Mossberg, Mike Isaac and Casey Newton – in college they majored in politics, English literature and journalism, respectively – went on to have outstanding careers. I’ll even slip in former journalist Michael Moritz, a history major who left journalism to become one of Silicon Valley’s most renowned tech venture capitalists.
A buddy of mine, Michael Fitzgerald, who covered technology for several decades, went to a liberal arts school where he majored in history – although he did take Pascal.
When he began his career, Michael, nowadays an articles editor at the Boston Globe Magazine, recalled that “you didn’t have to be overly technical, or very technical at all, to write those pieces.”
“I covered semiconductors and I certainly can’t write in machine language, nor could I be an engineer. So, I had to ask engineers what mattered to them. I distinctly remember telling a friend of mine what I was working on, and at some point, I realized she was staring at me in disbelief. So, I said, ‘what?’ and she said, ‘do you really care about this stuff?’ and the answer was, no, but I did want to scoop my rivals.”
So yes, it can work.
What’s a Relational Database?
But while the easy complaint that journalists aren’t technical enough to understand what they’re writing about is largely a cliché, don’t make the assumption that the person on the other side of the table – or Zoom call – is going to understand the nuances you want to drive home.
The fact is that tech journalism is prone to high job turnover and means lots of newbies will be cutting their teeth, sometimes at your expense. Part of being a junior reporter is that you’re pretty much a blank sheet and some may try and hide their lack of experience with lots of quiet nodding as you ramble on. That doesn’t mean they understand what you’re talking about. In fact, they may be entirely lost and just don’t want to admit it.
I might as well `fess up after all these years. My first-ever interview as a tech reporter was with a company from Massachusetts selling a relational database management system. I had no clue. My editor just walked into my cubicle and said “These guys are here. Cover their announcement.” He might as well have thrown me to the wolves because the results were equally bloody.
I had just arrived a week earlier after covering sports for the Associated Press and was hopelessly wet around the ears. The two geeks I sat down with were thrilled with their new product and eagerly led me through the feature list, bit by bit. They crammed more detail into an hour than I thought was humanly possible.
At a certain point in the interview, I had morphed into a zombie. I saved myself from ultimate embarrassment by keeping my hands strategically propped above my eyes to prevent the lids from closing.
Long story, short, I turned in a piece that was jibberish. My editor saved the day by calling the vendor up and reinterviewing the two guys over the phone. Not the greatest start to a career but I learned a lesson. I just wonder whether they did.
Know Your Market
More digital natives are entering the profession all the time and that’s a great thing. Still, if you make assumptions about your interlocutor’s technology bonafides, prepare for potential disappointment. The game plan for vendors should be to make it plain each time they sit down for an interview.
“You always have to meet reporters where they start,” says Microsoft’s top communications guru, Frank Shaw. “So, with new reporters we try and get a sense of what their background is, and where they might need more explanation.”
Frank’s one of the best in the business and he’s 100% right. Just like knowing your target customer, know your interviewer.
When it comes to positioning, messaging, and storytelling in any interview, take the time to be clear and concise – and above all, explain the bigger picture. Engineers easily fall in love with the pristine beauty of their code but 99.999% of the people living in the real world couldn’t care less; we want to know what problem is getting solved and how it helps us do our jobs more easily and safely.
But how do the pieces fit together? Why should any customer care? What’s the broader context? If you can answer those questions in clear, simple English, you’re ¾ of the way home. Make this understandable. Otherwise, you’re wasting everyone’s time – yours included.