Insights from subject matter experts (SMEs) can add immeasurable value to your content.
But interviewing SMEs can be a fraught process. They’re busy doing whatever it is that made them a sought-after SME in the first place, so you don’t want to waste their valuable time.
You also want to make sure the interview gives you the perspectives and quotes you need to spice up your content.
What can you do to make the most of your SME interviews? Here is the process that has served me well over the past 15 years as a freelance journalist, web content developer, and blog writer.
1. Know the story you want to tell
It’s hard to prepare for a SME interview without knowing why you want to interview them. And to know why you want to interview a particular SME, you need to know what story it is you want to tell.
If you’re developing website content, this means first fleshing out who your audience is and what messages you want them to walk away with.
For blog posts, this mean identifying not just the topic of a blog post (“How to reduce your energy usage”), but also the story angle (“5 ways to cut your heating bill this winter”).
2. Do your homework
The next step is to identify knowledge gaps. But before you run to your SME for filling in these gaps, first invest the time to do your own research first. That way, your SMEs aren’t spending their precious time filling you in on things you could’ve found out yourself.
By doing upfront research, you can focus on things you can only learn from the SME.
3. Ask the right questions
Once you’ve identified the true gaps in your knowledge, it is time to translate those gaps into questions that are clear, concise, straight-forward, and specific. Questions that elicit detailed, thoughtful answers are much better than yes/no questions.
Do Ask: What are the three biggest benefits your product offers over its competitors? What is the main problem your product is solving?
Don’t Say: Tell me about your product.
Having trouble developing good questions? Spend some time listening to your favorite radio and podcast interviews, and pay special attention to how the interviewers craft questions that draw out their subjects.
4. Give it your full attention
When it’s finally time for that SME interview, show up 100%. This means being truly present. Turn off any devices, websites, or apps that may distract you from the conversation. If you’re interviewing someone face-to-face, see if you can record the conversation so you’re focused on the person you’re talking to—not on note-taking. Then, without getting sidetracked, try to make a genuine personal connection with your SME, which will help put them at ease and increase the chance that they’ll go deeper into their answers.
Once the interview gets rolling, listen closely to your SMEs for any interesting or unexpected information you can dig deeper into. In other words, your prepared questions are a great starting point, but as the interview and your understanding of topic evolves, you will likely need to create some new questions on the fly.
5. Follow up
Be sure to ask your SME if it’s OK to follow up by email after the interview. You may find that once you get down to writing that you need some clarifications. A brief follow-up email or call can ensure accuracy and richness of detail without taking up much of anyone’s time.
Before publishing, there’s one more thing you’ll want to collaborate with SMEs on: direct quotes. Make sure to share them ahead of time, in the context of a rough draft, so you can be sure you quoted the experts accurately. In most circumstances, this is not some kind of journalistic breach of ethics, as beginning writers may think, but a perfectly sensible approach. In some cases, SMEs will realize that their literal words made sense in the context of the interview, but could be misconstrued when plunked in the middle of an article, and you’ll get a quote that better represents their insights.
Successful SME interviews can yield rich, relevant content that is useful for readers and reveals important, compelling and sometimes unexpected aspects of a company or organization’s product, service, or story.
Following the process above will ensure you get the most out of your interviews, which is the best way to show you respect their time. Plus, you’ll gain their willingness to collaborate with you in the future!
Looking for someone to interview your SMEs for a blog post or web content?
Contact me at [email protected].