Successful Subject Matter Expert Interviews
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask
It’s inevitable that at some point in your professional career, you’ll need to talk to someone who’s an expert in a subject about which you know much less. Maybe you’re a writer, an account executive, or a marketer who is gathering background information for a creative campaign, blog, or white paper? Or maybe you just need to better understand something technical or scientific so that you can make important decisions on behalf of your company? Interviewing a subject matter expert can be stressful and even intimidating, but with just a little preparation, you can get all the info you were hoping for … and more. That’s why we’ve put together this article about how to conduct successful subject matter expert interviews.
Before the Interview
Tip #1: Set Expectations
Clearly define the interview topic and provide context. What will you ask about and why? Giving your subject matter expert (SME) some idea of what’s coming and its importance will help them do any necessary preparation and show up ready to meet with you.
Be clear about logistical details like the interview start time, duration, and location. If it’s a virtual meeting, send login or call details in advance. If in-person, give an address and any special instructions, such as a description of your appearance if you’ll have to find each other in a crowd.
Tip #2: Do Your Research
There’s never been a better time to prepare for successful subject matter expert interviews. Thanks to Google, you have a wealth of information instantly available at your fingertips. So, prior to your interview, search the internet to find out more about your expert, their work, and the organization they represent. Come up to speed on the basics of any science or tech or history that you will be discussing and read relevant articles or publications they’ve written so that you can focus your interview time on getting the juicy bits of information that are NOT easily found on the internet.
Tip #3: Prep Your Questions
Compile questions as you do your research. Then go back and re-order them so your interview will proceed in a logical way. Start with “easy” questions like confirming their current job title and clarifying how they would like you to refer to them. Let your questions build in complexity, saving the hard ones for after you’ve built some rapport with your subject.
There’s no magic template or list of questions that works for every interview. The best approach is to put yourself in the shoes of your reader, listener, or audience and think about what they would like to know. Never assume you know the answer to a question, and it’s ok to ask questions that you think you already know how to answer. Your subject may give an answer that helps you convey information to others, and you may sometimes even get a very different answer than you were expecting.
Avoid questions that can be answered with one-word “yes” or “no” replies. They won’t produce good content unless your subject happens to be a garrulous extrovert. Instead, ask more “how”, “why”, and “please explain” questions. “Tell me about…” questions can elicit interesting info, but don’t make them so broad that your SME can’t focus enough to give a useful answer.
If you’re struggling to figure out what to ask, get a fresh perspective by brainstorming questions with a friend or colleague. It’s better to have too many questions and not use all of them than to find yourself in front of your subject facing awkward pauses while you try to figure out what to ask.
Tip #4: Consider Sharing Your Questions
Some subject matter experts will want to see questions in advance; others would rather not because they’re comfortable answering on the fly, or they know they won’t have time to read and think about them ahead of time anyway. So, ask your SME what they would prefer, and respect their wishes. And yes, it’s ok if the questions you ask in your interview don’t exactly match the ones you sent in advance. It’s normal to come up with some great new questions in the lead-up to and during the interview.
Tip #5: Show Up Ready and On-Time
Test any equipment, software, and meeting platforms that you plan to use. Make sure your phone, recorder, camera, tablet, and/or computer are working and have plenty of battery life left. Bring all necessary cords and adapters and bring your own hotspot so you don’t have to rely on someone else to provide an internet connection.
Last but not least, know where you are going ahead of time, and show up on time or a little early so you don’t keep your expert waiting. If you are nervous or stressed, don’t drink too much caffeine prior to the interview, and take a few minutes beforehand to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Then … relax, you’ve got this!
During the Interview
Tip #6: Go with the Flow
You prepared great questions, which will help keep your interview on track and get you the info you’re seeking, but the best interviews happen when you are willing and able to adapt on the fly.
Begin by introducing yourself and follow your SME’s lead on how much small talk to engage in as you establish an initial rapport. Then remind your expert of the context of the interview and begin with your questions. When your expert says something interesting that makes you think of new, unscripted follow-up questions, write them down so you can ask them when it’s an opportune time to work them in.
Tip #7: It’s Not About You
Turn off your phone so you are not disturbed. Nothing’s worse than being in the middle of capturing something great from your SME only to have them interrupted by your ringing phone. By silencing your devices, you send the message to your SME that they and their time are important.
Avoid interrupting unless you need to gently redirect your SME back to the question at hand, and listen more than you talk, giving signals that you are actively listening (like saying “yes”, “ok,” or nodding your head). Monitor yourself for any tendencies to shift the conversation toward yourself and your experiences. Catch yourself when you feel compelled to say “I know…” or “I think…” or when you start to tell a story about yourself.
Reserve judgement as you listen no matter whether you think something is right, wrong, good, or bad. Be empathetic but keep calm when your interviewee gets excited or when you are discussing an upsetting or difficult topic; no one expects you to fix issues or problems they bring up.
Tip #8: Take Notes or Record Your Interview
There are many ways to document an interview. You may prefer to write or type notes in real time; this can work well for fast typists who already have good knowledge of the subject area.
Or you may opt to make an audio or video recording (with their permission, of course); this can work well for referencing and understanding complicated details after the fact, although it means that you’ll also have to allow for sufficient time to transcribe your interview, whether you do it yourself or hire someone.
Tip #9: Paraphrase and Reflect
A useful interview trick, especially when covering complicated or difficult subject matter, is to paraphrase what your SME said and say it back to them. When they nod and smile, you’ve got it right. This also gives them the opportunity to correct what you got wrong or to elaborate.
Tip #10: Watch the Clock
Don’t get so engrossed in your interview that you blow past your interview end time. Respect everyone’s time by mindfully asking permission if you would like to go longer than planned. Be wary of collecting too much material; when you do that, a big portion will turn out to be irrelevant, and you’ll end up taking hours to sort through it.
Tip #11: Ask for Parting Thoughts
As your interview draws to a close, ask one last question, “Anything else you want to add?” or “Any parting thoughts?”. Often, the most interesting tidbits don’t come out until then, when you’ve both relaxed and stopped being constrained by specific questions. You may get more opinions than facts in response to this question, but it’s also when you often gain invaluable context or insight.
Tip #12: Clarify Next Steps
Restate any necessary follow-ups for you or them. Did they say they’d forward other relevant articles or photos? Have you promised them anything? Is it okay for you to ask follow-up questions by email, phone or text? And, finally, are they expecting you to send a rough or final draft of any resulting articles before or after publication or sharing?
After the Interview
Tip #13: Review Everything in a Timely Fashion
Don’t wait too long to go back through what you’ve collected. Everything will make more sense and be easier to summarize, compile, and write about while it’s fresh in your mind. Doing this well before your deadline also gives you time to catch mistakes and typos and clarify any confusing information.
Tip #14: Say Thank You
Always take time after your interview to thank your subject for sharing their time and expertise. Everyone appreciates some recognition for their efforts, and you never know when you might want to call upon them again. Be sure to also deliver any agreed-upon follow-ups.
The Power of Preparation
When it comes to doing successful subject matter expert interviews, you can learn a lot from these tips, but as with most skills, what it ultimately comes down to is preparation and practice. So do your prep work, relax and give it your best effort. Simply showing up prepared, being curious, and paying attention will go a long way to helping you make the most of your subject matter expert interviews.