If you’re in the business of creating content, you’ll likely find it necessary to do Subject Matter Expert (SME) interviews from time to time. As a professional writer, it’s often your job to collect, organize, and present the thoughts of other people. The SME interview is a vital element of that process.
An SME interview typically lasts 30 minutes or so, although interviews for more complex topics can run to an hour. Your interviewee’s time is valuable. In some instances, like when you’re interviewing a partner in a professional services firm or the CEO of a major company, their time might literally be worth thousands of dollars an hour.
That means there’s no time to waste. You need to approach these meetings with a game plan and an interview technique that gives you the best chance of success.
What does that look like? Here’s our take. Read on for six tips exploring how you can make the most of your SME interview opportunities.
This is the second article in a two-part series exploring our approach to SME interviews. You can read the first article, which is all about interview preparation, here: Standard Operating Procedures for Subject Matter Expert Interviews
First things first, you’re going to show up a couple of minutes early. You’re going to make sure there isn’t a pile of mess in your Zoom background and that you look presentable. The moment your interviewee joins, you’re ready to rock and roll.
Now, that’s all pretty obvious. But once your interviewee joins the call, how do you kick things off?
If it’s the first time you’ve spoken to someone, start by introducing yourself and outlining the reason for the call. Explain what the interviewee can expect and share what the outcome will look like. Ask if they have any questions about the process.
If you’ve already had calls with this person previously and they’re familiar with you and the process, you obviously don’t have to do that. Instead, just be friendly and engage in a little bit of small talk.
Building camaraderie with your interviewee in the opening minute or two of your interview is really important. It establishes you as a trusted professional who they can speak openly with. If you launch right into your questions, you run the risk of being seen as cold and impersonal, and that can cause your interviewee to clam right up.
Before you get started with your questions, you’re going to ask for permission to record the call. This will make your life a lot easier when it’s time for you to write the article.
Emphasize that the recording will remain private and be for your use only. The point of recording the interview is two-fold:
I’ve yet to have someone refuse to be recorded in an SME interview. But you do still have to ask. Depending on where you (and your interviewee) are located, it might be illegal to record the conversation without their consent.
When you prepared for this interview, you should have pulled together an outline for the interview that contained a series of questions.
If you’re lucky, your interviewee will have looked at this ahead of time. If you’re really lucky, they’ll have prepared notes outlining their thoughts on all these questions. If they’ve done neither, that’s fine too.
Kick off your interview by sticking to these questions. You’re not going to follow this outline to the letter, but having your key questions written down helps you ensure you cover all the main concepts of the subject.
Throughout the interview, your interviewee is going to say some interesting things. As the interviewer, it’s your job to pull at those threads and probe intriguing ideas in more detail.
Don’t stick rigidly to your outline. Your interviewer knows much more than you do. If they think something is interesting, it’s your job to cajole them into talking more about why it’s interesting and why your audience should care.
This isn’t to say you should encourage the interviewee to go off on an irrelevant tangent about some unrelated topic for five or ten minutes. Use your judgment to decide when to probe an issue in more depth and when to steer the conversation back to your next question.
As a writer, you represent the interests of your audience. And as you conduct the interview, it’s vital you keep this in mind.
It’s unlikely your audience will have the same level of knowledge of the topic as the expert you’re interviewing. That might mean you have to add additional context, provide explanations for complicated ideas, or even simplify some of the concepts your interviewee is talking about.
Your interviewee may race past a point that could be interesting to your audience. It’s your job to tug on the reins and bring them back to that point, and then explore it in more detail together. Approach your interviews with a degree of naivety and commit to showing genuine curiosity on the behalf of your audience.
Managing the cadence and flow of the interview also demands that you keep one eye on the clock. If you have five main questions, and only get time to explore three of them in detail, you’re selling yourself and your audience short.
Actively manage the progress of the interview to ensure you can fit everything into the time that you have. Time passes fast. Many SME interviews are conducted in 30-minute slots, and you’ll be surprised at how fast that goes once you get into detail on a complicated subject.
If you can, try to leave a few minutes extra at the end of the interview. Use this time to take a beat and make sure that you’ve covered everything you aimed to before the call.
Ask your interviewee if there’s anything that they didn’t talk about that they felt they should have. Give them a chance to reflect on the topic and share any final thoughts that tie a neat bow on the interview.
Like pretty much any skill you turn your hand to, learning how to become an effective SME interviewer takes time, hard work, and plenty of practice.
Every interviewer is on a journey: from the freelancer just starting out to the journalist at the top of their profession. You can always improve. With every completed interview, take the chance to reflect on what went well and what elements of your interviewing style you could tweak for next time.
This is a deeply personal skill. Becoming an effective interviewer demands that you use your intuition and adapt your behavior based on the person you’re interviewing. While these tips are intended to help, it’s crucial to find out what works best for you and your interviewees. The only way to do that? By getting out there and putting in the reps.
The better you become at interviewing, the more valuable you’ll become: both to your business and your audience. You’ll be able to unlock new knowledge, encourage leaders to share incisive thoughts, and help people tell their stories in new, exciting ways.