How to do a Subject Matter Expert (SME) Interview

CAREER

July 11, 2021

Joy Youell

Joy Youell is an expert copywriter and content strategist.

Interviewing subject matter experts (known in the industry as “SMEs”) is a common task for copywriters. Especially in complex fields, SMEs shrink the learning curve for a copywriter down to a minimal research phase. However, it isn’t always a straightforward, “ask and get a meaningful answer” exercise. In fact, I find it took me quite a while to really nail a rhythm. Even then, it changes with every person you’re in front of. As someone who does between 5-7 SME interviews a week, here are my ideas about what works.

Interviewing Subject Matter Experts: When You Should Insist on it

First and foremost, know this: people who are native to an industry (engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants) will make huge assumptions about what the common man understands. In these cases—and with SaaS, cryptocurrency and any other emerging technology—I strongly recommend that you should push for interview-based content. 

General rule: if you can’t find satisfying, globally agreed-upon answers to something on Google, you need to interview somebody from inside the company. Otherwise, your work will be far too superficial, and may not even be right.

Prepare to Interview a SME

First, do some research. I mean, don’t spend hours, but check them and their company out. I recommend 15-20 minutes. Google them. Google their company. Check them out on LinkedIn (you’ll get the brownie points of them seeing that you did that). Use that research to craft intelligent questions. 

SME Question Ideas

Now, this part comes with a HUGE “BUT.” (If you watch the video - this is where Peewee Herman comes in). I regularly ghostwrite for journalists (sshh) and they’ll send me a list of “interview questions” to ask a SME. I rarely use them. I use the *ideas* of them, but I have never had success reading questions off to a subject matter expert interview and getting great answers. For me anyway, it’s just too robotic. The best interviews feel like you’re having a cup of coffee and they’re sharing from the heart. Even the most academic interviewees want to convey their passion and purpose, not regurgitate value propositions and pitches. You’re more likely to get the latter if you’re just rattling off rapid fire questions.

“But won't I miss something?” Maybe. So do come prepared with an idea of what you want to talk about. I should not have to say “do not ask yes or no questions” but I guess I just did. Here are some suggestions:

  • Tell me about how your company started.
  • Where did the idea for X come from?
  • I’d love to learn about how you feel X is new.
  • Talk to me about the connection between X and X in the market.

Here’s what (again, in my experience) SMEs are not going to have answers to:

  • Who has influenced you most in your career?
  • Who do you see as a great competitor in this space?
  • Name X
  • When did this happen? 
  • Could you share a quote about…?

Those are big fat fails. They’re just not prepared off the top of their head with answers for those. Remember, you prepared for this interview. They probably didn’t. Ask them questions that make them feel like an expert. I’ve watched some pretty high-powered people falter when they get peppered or feel put on the spot. You should be as non-threatening as possible and only ask questions you know they know the answer to.

9/10 the “tell me about your professional journey” question is almost the only one you need. People are experts about themselves and their very specific role in their field. They can talk all day. And will. So that’s next.

SME Intro and Expectation Management

I always set a context for an SME interview. Sometimes, I get on with people who have no idea who I am. They usually only have a vague idea of why we’re talking. It’s up to me to lead with a strong, brief introduction and set the context.

I typically go with something like this:

“Thanks so much for sharing some time with me today! I look forward to learning about your company. I’ve been on your site and am fascinated by the innovation - truly unique! I’m the writer who’s going to crafting this piece for Forbes.”

Especially if they’re a high-powered exec, and may interpret this as a disruption in their day, a little compliment and display of keen interest go a long way in settling them into the discussion.

How to Guide an SME Discussion

In case you don’t know a lot of humans: people love to talk about themselves. It’s their most favorite thing, usually. They also love to talk about what they do. If you get a specialist pointed in the right direction, they will talk a lot. So, here are some preparatory items that you can decide in advance and use to ensure you don’t waste any time and end up with what you actually need.

  • Know the title of the article (and general outline, if possible) you are writing from this interview. That title is your promise to the reader, so you want to be sure you get any answers and relevant info in this interview.
  • Know, generally, the things you want quotes about. You may anticipate use for a quote about the company, quote about the industry, quote about the product. If you can tee all of that up, you just have to ask questions the right way and you won’t have gaps later.

Here are 3 reminders:

  1. You can interrupt an SME if they’re going off the rails, conceptually speaking. 
  2. Your time is limited. You want plenty of juicy story and industry thought leadership, so if you’re 20 minutes in and they’re still doing travelogue, redirect. You’re responsible for managing the time.
  3. You don’t have to fill dead air. Give your SME time to think about an answer. Some need none - some need a minute. Wait and let them think.

Finishing a SME Discussion

Do not let an SME call go long. For me, it’s a hard stop at time. Even if they seem very into it, you don’t need more than the time you allotted, and you need to respect their time. I always stop 2 minutes early and say something like this, 

“I see we’re almost at time so I want to respect that.”

Then, I always set expectations for next steps:

“So you know what to expect, I will take all of this great content and use it to write the piece. In three days, you’ll get a draft which you can review. Feel free to edit it and give me plenty of feedback. I especially want to be sure that anything in quotation marks is reviewed by you, so you feel confident that you’re well-represented. If you have any questions in the meantime, or think of anything you forgot to mention, feel free to email me. Our goal is for this to be a great piece, so we’ll work together to make that happen.”

If they keep trying to talk, reiterate the, “email me after” idea. It’s important that they know when they will hear from you again, with what, and how much of an editing right you’re giving them. 

These may not be the next steps for your SME interview, but whatever yours are, don’t hang up without communicating them clearly.

Last tip: after you’ve interviewed someone, you now have the right to connect with them on LinkedIn, because you’ve met face to face. Go connect with them and send a friendly note, reminding them how you met. It may be a really good opportunity to broaden your network with some high-powered individuals.

Annnnnd that’s it. That’s how I do it.


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