How researchers get heard
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Nick Cage’s Laws for Q&As

The best Q&A in the history of the world: David Marchese’s New York Times interview of the actor Nicholas Cage, which ran in August and blew the heads off of about 20,000 Hollywood agents and publicists.

I haven’t watched a Nick Cage movie in probably 20 years (“Con Air”?), but even I found it compulsively readable. It’s a front-row seat to a person (or a person playing a person) who’s both exploding and integrating simultaneously, a process you come to realize Cage goes through (or thinks he goes through, which is probably the same thing) not just during interviews but every day.

From start to finish, it’s a blast of singularity in a wasteland of overmessaged sameness.

The problem with other Q&As is not that they aren’t as good as the Cage Q&A. The problem with other Q&A is that they don’t have the three elements that make the Cage Q&A both readable and immersive:

  1. the intimate quality of an overhead conversation with
  2. a person who or a person in a position that we (the audience) are already curious about, who
  3. has a unique, strong, and surprising set of POVs and insights (surprising even themselves, under good questioning).

These three elements are why a podcast might work while the Q&A transcript of the podcast does not. (The latter lacks intimacy, and reading surprises isn’t as surprising as hearing them.)

For researchers, the prospect of being the subject of a Q&A is deceptive. It’s a format that seems as if it will foreground your voice and expertise, for the small price of sitting down and being interviewed — better ROI than writing your own opinion/analysis content.

But it’s damn hard to obey all three Nick Cage laws. You need 1) a really good interviewer, and 2) an exceptionally smart and surprising subject. That’s because, for readers, the Q&A format now codes as a junior, first-person form of FAQ — as instruction. And we’re averse to overt instruction unless we’ve specifically requested it.

I think there’s still a place for Q&As with subjects whose voices are often marginalized and whose stories are both surprising and need to be heard — for instance, this short interview in Nature with Nomawethu Hlazo, a black African archeology student who talks about her difficulties in a field often lacking in diversity. But they can’t be dutiful; they need to hit all three Nick Cage requirements.

Otherwise, the more strategic play —​ the one that more quickly brands your experts and builds authority with an audience: write a first-person narrative or opinion piece.