BUSINESS

December 29, 2022

Ross Henderson

Ross is an executive-level business analyst and copywriter.

Standard Operating Procedures for Subject Matter Expert Interviews

This is the first of two articles sharing our approach to SME interviews. This article explores standard operating procedures for SME interview workflows, while the second article shares how to run the SME interview itself.

If you’re in any kind of content creation position, you need to understand how to conduct an effective Subject Matter Expert (SME) interview. Becoming a skilled interviewer helps you elevate your career above the commoditized world of low-value SEO content writing. Instead, you’ll become someone who plays an active role in creating thought leadership

The path to building the skills required to be a good interviewer is a similar path to the skills required to build any other skill: lots of reps. The more interviews you do, the better you get. 

The best interviewers––the Malcolm Gladwells and Oprahs of this world––have the calluses to show for their interviewing skills. They’ve been in this game for years, getting better day by day, interview by interview. 

Regardless of how sharp your interviewing skills are, one thing that can help put you on the path to a successful interview is adopting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Successful interviews happen when both interviewer and interviewee are prepared, aligned on expectations, and excited to work together. 

So, what does a good SOP for conducting SME interviews look like? Below, I’ll share my process. Check it out, take inspiration from it, and tweak it to find a process that works for you and your interviewees. 

Want to learn more about how to conduct the interview itself? Read this article, the second in this two-part series: [LINK].

Step 1: Identify the SME

Before you can start the process, you first need to identify the person you want to interview. Assuming you’ve already been assigned a topic or have an idea in mind, you’ll want to find the person in your network who knows the most about that topic. 

The clue is in the name: Subject Matter Expert interview. You don’t want someone with a basic understanding of the subject, you want someone who has a well-developed, nuanced knowledge of the topic. 

If you’re an agency or freelancer working with an external client, you’ll probably need to lean on your client to help you identify the right person. If you’re an in-house content writer, talking to people from across your organization will help you figure out who is best positioned to help you. 

Step 2: Preparation

Okay, so you’ve identified who you’re going to talk to. Now you just send them an email and set up a call, right? 

Hold up a second. 

Before you reach out to schedule, you need to do your prep work. That means reading other content about this topic, figuring out which questions to ask, and putting together a brief overview that you can share with your interviewee. 

Keep this simple. Spend some time Googling the topic so you head into the interview with a rudimentary understanding of the basics and use your newfound knowledge to draw up a list of broad questions that you can ask. You’ll deviate from these during the interview but having a rough outline sets expectations and keeps things on track. 

Step 3: Scheduling a Call

Now you can schedule a call. Go ahead and draft an email to your interviewee. Here’s the template I use:

Hi [Name],

I'm reaching out to schedule an interview with you for  _____________________.

The article we’d like your input on is titled _____________________. 

Here are some initial questions to guide our conversation. (Add a link to a Google Doc with your questions). 

Is there a good time to schedule a call for next week? If it's easier, you can grab a 30-minute slot on my calendar here (add your Calendly link). Thanks!

Pretty simple, right? All you have to do is tell the SME why you’re contacting them, set some expectations in terms of what you’re going to talk about, and make it easy for them to schedule with you whenever suits them. 

Most people grab a spot on your calendar right away, but if you don’t see anything within a couple of days, don’t be afraid to follow up. 

Step 4: Pre-Call Check-In

The day before the call, touch base with your interviewee to make sure that everything is set for your interview. 

This primarily serves as a reminder that the call is happening, since your SMEs are likely to be busy people with full schedules. But this reminder email also gives them an opportunity to reschedule if something came up and allows you to share the questions again so that they’re easily accessible during your interview. 

Step 5: Call

When the time of the call comes around, both you and the person you’re interviewing should be well-prepared and ready to use your time productively. 

Before the call, make sure you have everything you need close at hand. At a minimum, you should know how to record a Zoom call and have your list of questions ready. 

We’re not going to explore how you should run the call in this blog article. For that, read the next article in this series. 

Step 6: Follow Up

Once the call is over, your work isn’t done. In fact, it’s only just getting started. 

Transcribe your call recording using a software tool like Otter. That way, you can easily refer back to the transcript of the call as you’re writing your article. 

When you’ve written and edited your article, it’s time to close the loop and share it with the SME. Aim to do this no later than a week after the interview. Send them an email thanking them for their time, share a draft of the article, and ask for feedback. This ensures your article accurately represents their thoughts on the topic and is valuable to your readers. 

Preparation is the Key to Success

Alone, this framework isn’t going to turn you into a world-class interviewer but it will put you in a position to be successful. Identifying repeatable processes that work well is vital in any business, and it’s no different for content writers. 

Using this SOP keeps you organized and makes sure your SME knows exactly what to expect. That’s a great starting point for you to then develop and build your skills as an interviewer. 

Stay tuned for the second part of this article, which explores how you should manage the interview itself to glean valuable information and insights from your SME.

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