What Media Pioneer Dr. Moira Gunn Learned from Interviewing Over 2000 Tech Leaders
Tips from an Award-Winning Author, Media Host and Former NASA Scientist
Dr. Moira Gunn is an award-winning author and esteemed host of NPR and American Forces Radio International’s Tech Nation and BioTech Nation, produced at the studios of KQED in San Francisco. Her trail-blazing program educates the public on the issues of science and technology. She has led over 2,000 in-depth interviews from leaders of diverse backgrounds such as Andy Grove, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Senator John McCain, Ralph Nader, Scott Adams, Alvin Toffler, Paul Krugman, and many more CEO’s, entrepreneurs, research scientists, venture capitalists, policy makers and industry pioneers. Dr. Gunn is the recipient of the National Science Board’s Public Service Award, and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. She has worked for NASA as an engineer and scientist. Dr. Gunn is a media luminary and trailblazer.
I caught up with Dr. Gunn at Exponential Medicine 2017 by Singularity University, a unique and intensive summit of world-class faculty, innovators, and organizations from across biomedical and technology domains.
Out of the over 2,000 interviews that you have done, which surprised you the most and why?
In general, what’s surprising is that every so often I get a book across my desk and I wonder why we’re interviewing that person, and those interviews come out great. You never know.
Recently Matt Richtel, a novelist, cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, was on the show and it became a dialogue instead of an interview.
Once I stumped Stephen Jay Gould, a famous paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, on a question. We had had eight seconds of dead air and I insisted we didn’t cut it out of the show.
Have you found a common thread on how people come to form their opinions, especially when a comprehension of the underlying tech and science is needed?
We have to have a responsible democracy with personal responsibility and responsible voting. Nobody can understand everything. Know thyself and also recognize that faith needs to be respected. It’s a challenge with all the new information. Everyone has access to smart phones, internet, and the ability to see all kinds of information graphically. Media is changing and the media has to change.
Information is data in context. We’re novices in this at this point. There’s new technology, then a whole lot of individuals uses it, society makes decisions on the tech, and then we make laws. It gets back to getting an understanding of the problem… that they get it. It’s important to develop a culture of multidisciplinary education. It’s important to develop a deep expertise in one area, so that you can cross over to another area. At the University of San Francisco, where I’m a founder of the Business of Biotech program and an Associate Professor, we focus on twelve disciplines which drive breakthroughs. Student enter from any area of expertise and learn from through the classroom and by interacting with each other to earn an MBA, MSIS and PSM in biotechnology.
What are the elements of a great on-air interview and how do you achieve this?
The number one thing is that the guest has good and verifiable credentials. Vetted people who are qualified and willing to talk make the best guests. Then I read their books, and all the press and internet research about them. Then I think of what our listeners wants to hear. For example, 40–45% of our audience is female from multiple generations. What would be appealing to them? Always have an opening question that tells a story through those questions. Are the people coming through as real people? Ask a personal question to engage the guest on a personal level. Get them laughing. Ask them questions that others aren’t asking.
You wrote “Welcome to BioTech Nation … My Unexpected Odyssey into the Land of Small Molecules, Lean Genes, and Big Ideas” that was cited by the Library Journal on its “Best Science Books of 2007.”What is the secret to your pioneering success? How did you find time to write a book? What are some tips that you have for aspiring authors?
Books come from inside you. I wrote that book in seven weeks. Books are in a sense like art. If you have writer’s block, find another thing to write about. Get an Excel spreadsheet and calculate how many words you need to write. For a book 80,000–90,000 is typical. Target 40,000 words. A book is an expression of you.
What is the secret to your pioneering success?
The first thing was the message from my parents. They said, “You can do anything and be anything.” My Mom was the mayor of Menlo Park and the founder of community services. My Dad was supportive. When I was a child he showed me a picture of a space mission and said, “You can be an astronaut.” Kids pick up on it all. You become a lot of what your parents are. They taught me that what you say and what you do matters.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on November 15, 2017.