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Beyond Busy

April 16th, 2005

Dr Petra

Getting help with your story or programme planning isn’t easy. Journalists or television researchers often have to approach experts by email to help them get started.

Most begin well with an acknowledgement in the first line the person they’re emailing is likely to be busy.

Often this good start goes awry when they then provide a list of twenty or so detailed questions they’d like the expert to answer. Most people want to help, but faced with such an onslaught it’s hard to know where to begin.

Although the journalists or television researchers always guarantee answering their questions will ‘only take fifteen minutes’.

Ah, the magic ‘fifteen minutes’. We use that in research as well, to make a study seem less time consuming. Most experts immediately know ‘fifteen minutes’ really means anywhere between thirty minutes and an hour.

Perhaps journalists are onto us. As well as telling you answering their questions won’t take long, they then add something like: ‘As mentioned I know you’re very busy so if you don’t have time to answer my questions could you please provide a list of other colleagues (telephones and emails) I could get in touch with, and a list of websites that are related to my story/programme idea’

Most experts who the media contact are overworked. They’ll have to fit in answers to journalists alongside teaching, research, seeing patients, or administrative work. They usually don’t have time to read through lengthy emails, or provide you with huge contact lists or websites. Even if you start off on the right foot with a polite acknowledgement they’re busy, you risk undoing this good work if you then give them so much to do you imply you don’t think they’re busy at all.

So here’s how to get round it. When you email, explain who you are, where you’re from, and what you’re working on. Say you’re in the planning stages at this time, and request to book ten minutes to chat on the phone with them to get some basic ideas of where you should be going with your story/programme. Don’t overload them with lots of questions or demands for them to list you websites. If they’ve time to talk to you, they’ll be able to tell you this stuff then.

If people don’t feel pressured, they’re probably more likely to spend time with you. But most experts, on seeing a small essay in their in-box, are more likely to ignore it, if it doesn’t directly link to their work.

A bit like editors, really ;-)

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