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On Being a Guest Expert

Over the past couple years, I've fielded calls from journalists to give comments on topics related to my research on gender and Japanese society. While often anxious about presenting myself as an "expert" when I often still feel like I have so much to learn, I've also felt encouraged by the advice of historian Andrea Peto (CEU), who is a bit advocate for translating the ideas that come from gender theory and research on gender history to the general public.

So, here I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned. It's very idiosyncratic and very incomplete. But it may help if you find yourself suddenly in the hot seat as a "guest expert!"

1) Make notes, but don't read them

If a journalist contacts you, they will let you know the general topic they would like to discuss with you. Some will also have some questions to give you beforehand, or allow you to respond with answers via email.

But some will prefer phone calls (in a way, this also takes up less of your time), and radio & TV will for sure require that you deliver answers orally.

I try to prepare by getting familiar with whatever news topic is under discussion, and make sure that whatever statistics or facts / names I may want to talk about are correct. I often write up some notes on this. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, link to what I do feel like I know something about, and helps me zoom in on: what might be the main message I want to convey here?

But once it is go time, particularly if you are presenting on TV, I would recommend *not* reading the notes. Sometimes I keep the file open on my computer, or have sticky notes handy. But I've given the best interviews when I've tried to stay very present, and listened carefully to the questions and answered without reading off of notes.

2) Try to stay "on message"

What I mean by this is: you can't be sure what kind of questions you will get, but don't let that distract you. The question that most threw me once was about how Japan's gender discrimination fit with the image of a super-modern Japan. I got really hung up on my historian perspective on "modernity" and only in retrospect realized that it wasn't really the place to critique the teleological idea of progress and modernity. It would have been enough to note that sexist comments by Japanese elites did jar with the desired global image of a "super-modern" Japan.

As you can see in the screenshot of this Bloomberg interview below, the messages are going to get condensed into soundbites. You want to try to get ahead of this process. It isn't as satisfying as a deeper, academic analysis. But I think it is important for communication to a larger audience, and builds on some of the skills academics already develop in the classroom.

3) Sit still, look in the camera

This advice came from a very kind Al Jazeera producer, who told me for future reference that I should try to keep my hands out of the frame and look at my computer camera. For me, it feels really unnatural to speak without moving my hands, so that is a challenge. The need to look into the camera is another good reason to wean yourself off of looking at notes while talking!

Another thing I've noticed is that TV announcers actually don't move their heads very much. I've realized through this process that I move my head and face a lot. For IRL interactions, this seems important... but on screen it can be very distracting, especially since my technology results in a kind of lag that in-studio announcers don't have.

4) Try to enjoy it, learn from it, pass it around

When I first got quoted in news stories, I was convinced that my awkward expressions would expose my actual incompetence. Remember that your quality as an academic is in your research and teaching, and try to enjoy any chance to link what you've researched and taught with contemporary events. Try to enjoy it, and learn from it.

Also, if you have the good fortune to build some connections with journalists as a "guest expert," try to think generously about other academics whose work you like and whom you can suggest to give comments as well. Good academic research requires a good academic community! Journalists and academics have different methods (and very very different publishing pressures!) to understand the world we live in, but it seems worthwhile to me to try to communicate about what we think is important in many different ways. If one of those ways is the soundbite, I'm willing to try to learn!

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