Best Subject Matter Expert Interview Questions for Writers to Ask
by Sarah Greenberg | December 15, 2022 | Content Creation
Great content is steeped in great research. Great research includes interviews.
Speaking of interviews, one of my favorites is when Christy Carlson Romano and Mara Wilson danced while making the Matilda tart.
Millennial pop culture references aside, interviews with subject matter experts are a non-negotiable part of content creation. In my opinion, writers themselves cannot be separate or removed from those interviews. In fact, the best content is created when writers conduct or at least attend the interviews themselves.
But the thing is, I’ve found that many writers are used to doing only that–writing. They don’t know how to conduct fruitful subject matter expert interviews that can be turned into polished content pieces. Some also prefer to keep writing a solo activity and get nervous about having to lead or attend an interview. Or, their supervisors fail to see the importance of including writers in the process and have someone else conduct the interview.
That’s what today’s blog addresses. We’ll cover why and how to help your writers play an integral role in conducting subject matter expert interviews.
Table of Contents
What is a Subject Matter Expert?
Why Make Writers Part of the Subject Matter Expert Interview Process?
Tips on Running Productive Subject Matter Expert Interviews
Best Subject Matter Expert Interview Questions to Ask
When You Might Need to Hire a New Writer
What is a Subject Matter Expert?
The term subject matter expert (SME) refers to a person with specialized knowledge in a given field or on a particular topic. For an in-depth definition, check out this fantastic article.
For the purposes of this blog, SMEs include the following:
Professionals in any area or niche who have garnered knowledge, experience and esteem from their years of work and/or education. Examples of industry experts include professors, authors, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, speakers and more.
Interviews with industry experts are perfect for creating educational content, such as lead magnets, podcast episodes and blogs.
Employees within a company or team who can speak to the company’s goals, challenges and processes. Sales reps, marketers, C-suite executives, customer service reps are examples of internal or company experts.
Interviews with internal or company experts are perfect for creating foundational marketing pieces, such as customer personas, customer journeys and website copy. These SMEs can also inform the creation of sales-focused content, such as sales sheets, email campaigns and product guides. Internal experts also make fantastic podcast guests and guest bloggers.
Why Make Writers Part of the Subject Matter Expert Interview Questions Process?
Why is it so important for writers to speak to SMEs themselves, or at the very least be present on calls with them? Two reasons.
#1 Writers are the ones closest to the content.
Writers are the ones most intimately involved with the content portion of a given project. They are responsible for creating content that moves readers to some kind of action. That action could be moving a brand to the top of readers’ minds or moving readers to download a lead magnet, submit a form or make a purchase.
Moving readers to action requires writers to capture a brand’s voice perfectly and often translate complex topics to lay audiences. In my opinion, those tasks are fulfilled best when writers hear and see SMEs. Only through a real-time call, in-person meeting or even a raw recording can writers truly immerse themselves in a brand, topic and/or a company mission and culture. The more writers can immerse themselves, the more powerful and action-inspiring the content they produce will be.
#2 Writers know what they need for their process.
Professional writers know the type of raw information they need in order to create high-quality content. That’s why it makes sense to have them speak with SMEs themselves.
If writers are not asked to conduct or attend SME interviews, they have to rely on notes from the people who did conduct or attend the interviews. That can be a problem because recaps from other people vary widely. Some people take extensive, detailed notes. Others highlight what they deem are the most important ideas. And some people write down just a few phrases to jog their memory of main points.
What do all of these scenarios have in common? Each of those people take notes in the way that is comfortable for them. They don’t take notes in the way that works best for the writer. Even if they took notes with the writer in mind, they still don’t know the depth and structure that will best help the writer turn the notes into polished content. Additionally, when non-writers conduct SME interviews, they may not know to ask certain questions that would provide key data to writers.
How to Conduct Productive Subject Matter Expert Interviews–Tips
Before creating subject matter expert interview questions, it’s crucial that writers set themselves up for success–before, during and after interviews
After years of conducting SME interviews, here are my tips and best practices for ensuring valuable responses. In other words, here is how to conduct SME interviews so productive that the final content practically writes itself.
Feel free to hand these tips right to the writer you’ve now assigned to conduct or attend your next SME interview.
Before the interview
- Do basic research on the SMEs you’ll be interviewing. Know their job title, location, general service offerings and any major news of their company or work. Ex. Look at their social media pages. Google the SME’s company’s name and hit the News tab for headlines you should know. Why do this? Because it makes you look professional and informed to the SME. It also prevents you from spending time asking questions that have easy-to-find-on-your-own answers.
- Prepare a list of 10-15 subject matter interview questions. Come to the interview with more questions than you think you’ll need. If the SME is a fast talker or provides brief answers, the last thing you want to do is waste time trying to think of more questions.
- Create a master Word/Google doc that only you reference. This is where you’ll post your interview questions, take notes, transfer any handwritten notes and reference when creating content.
- If you’re conducting a phone/virtual interview, plug in all of the devices you’ll need. Ensure your wifi connection is stable. Have plenty of paper and pens with you if you prefer to take notes by hand, and to have as a backup in case something happens while you’re taking notes on your computer.
- If you’re conducting an in-person interview, bring your laptop, charger and plenty of paper and pens.
- Consider bringing a colleague. Ask your colleague to take notes with you. A second pair of eyes and ears helps you capture more of the conversation. Plus, bringing a colleague can ease any nerves about speaking with an SME.
Did you know Hey Sarah can conduct your subject matter expert interviews for you?
During the interview
- Hit record. If the SME is okay with having the conversation recorded (ask them when you get on the call or in an email beforehand), having the live recording is always a good idea. You can refer back to the conversation for small details you may have missed. Also, if your notes from the interview get lost (this happened to me once!), you have the recording as a backup.
- At the beginning of the interview, say, “You talk, I’ll type.” I’ve been using this line for years and interviewees like it. It provides friendly, clear instructions of how the call will go, and it alerts the SME that they can speak freely.
- Be curious. Take a genuine interest in what the SME is saying. Ask 1-2 followup questions about a specific point they mention. Depending on time, allow them to go on a tangent. When SMEs speak freely, they often reveal more of their personality and knowledge–both of which you can infuse into the final content.
- Reserve the last 5-10 minutes for anything the SME wants to say. Do this even if you haven’t asked every question on your list. You can say, “We have about 5 minutes left. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed/I haven’t asked?” This signals to the SME that you value their time and what they have to say. Plus, this question can yield something unexpected that can make your final content stand out.
- Before you end the interview, tell the SME next steps. It’s tempting to want to hop off the phone or leave the meeting after you have the information you need, especially if the interview was long and full of complex information. But a brief explanation of what happens next is another way to respect the SME’s time and help them to think highly of you. Examples of next steps: “I’ll email email you next week with a draft of the content that features your responses.” “Can we set up another time talk?” “While I work on the draft, I’ll be on the lookout for any additional information you’d like to share.”
- Assure the SME that they will see the content before it goes live. Be sure to tell the SME that they will have the chance to review and approve their portion of the content before it goes live. People need that reassurance. Also, depending on the size and structure of their organization, some also need time for their supervisors to review their responses.
After the interview
- Send the SME a quick email the same day. Thank them for their time and remind them of the next step. If applicable, copy your supervisor or relevant teammates to alert them that the interview is done.
- Take a break. SME interviews can be taxing. Move your body. Drink some water. Go outside. Step away from your devices. Clear your head before diving back into your notes or other work.
- Combine handwritten notes and notes from colleague. Remember that master Word doc you started before the interview? Now’s the time to whip it back out. Add any handwritten notes you took. Ask your colleague to add their notes as well. Keep all notes in this single location.
- Make the document readable. After an interview, your Word doc can look like big blocks of text. That won’t help you when it’s time to actually use it. Read through your notes. Find areas where a paragraph break, bulleted list or theme-based headers makes sense. Your future self will thank you.
Best Subject Matter Expert Interview Questions
Below is a list of subject matter expert interview questions that help ensure productive interviews. They are in no particular order. Writers can pick and choose from them, depending on the type of SME they’re interviewing–industry experts or internal/company experts.
- What are the top 1-2 messages you think this piece of content should convey?
- Tell me about your audience. What do they like, dislike, want to accomplish, feel challenged by?
- Can you explain this process/concept to me as if I’m a child?
- What are 1-2 tangible takeaways or action items you’d like to give the audience?
- Tell me a little bit about how you got into this field. What do you like about it? How do you feel you’re making an impact in the field?
- Where do you see this field going in the next 5-10 years?
- What’s your take on this [relevant piece of industry news] that just came out?
- What haven’t we covered during our time that you’d like to mention?
- If the audience takes away just one message from this content, what do you want that message to be?
- What would you say are the most important changes that need to happen in this industry?
- Name some of the most comment questions you get from customers.
- If you could wave a magic wand and have your biggest problem/challenge erased, what would that be?
- In what ways does your company stand out from your competitors?
- Who are you watching right now in your industry? Who is inspiring you, making you nervous, doing interesting work?
- How do you think [specific world event] will impact your field?
When You Might Need to Hire a New Writer
Let’s face it. Some writers are just averse to–or downright refuse–to conduct SME interviews. No judgement. They are probably top-notch writers who can create amazing content. If you just need writing done, by all means keep them on your team.
But if your content requires SME interviews on even a semi-regular basis (and remember, great content requires some level of SME input), it might be time to find someone with reliable writing chops, a decent level of comfortability asking subject matter expert interview questions and the ability to represent your brand well.
These brief but powerful hiring tips from Julia McCoy are a great place to start that process.