Subject matter expert interviews don’t have to be scary if you do your research and ask as many questions as possible in the time allotted.
You’re just starting out as a copywriter. Or you’re not a writer per se, but you’re part of a support team that handles your company’s blogs, e-books, case studies, or white papers.
Let’s say you’re about to tackle a new topic that’s unfamiliar to you. You’re not an expert on the topic, but you’re going to need to look as if you know your stuff.
Your next step? Research and subject matter expert interviews.
Super stressful, right? At least these interviews are stressful for some people. If you’re one of those people, don’t worry. I’m going to walk you through it.
Don’t Be Like Everybody Else — Be You
Subject matter expert interviews are stressful for some people. They sure were for me 142 years or so ago when I began my career. At the time, I worked on U.S. Department of Defense manuals, and it was my job to capture information from the whip-smart coders, trainers, and configuration management (CM) folks with whom I worked in the basement of the Pentagon.
They knew their stuff. Me? I knew next to nothing.
Very quickly, I learned to own my complete absence of knowledge on whatever topic I was covering. Owning my lack of expertise was a lifesaver. Back then, as now (God willing), I was a special mix of few preconceived notions and loads of curiosity. When I interviewed my coworkers, I found the courage to ask every question that popped into my head.
The best part? They put up with me. I can’t recall anyone ever shutting me down or sniping at me or rolling their eyes at my ignorance. Sometimes I even asked the same question several different ways to ensure I got the gist of particularly challenging topics. For the most part, those I interviewed went along for the ride.
Here’s the thing: Most people don’t ask questions. The ones who do ask questions usually don’t listen very well.
But that’s not you. At least it doesn’t have to be. At least not after you read the 10 subject matter expert interview tips I’m about to share with you.
Subject Matter Expert Interviews Top 10 Tips
Here’s what to do:
- Take a deep breath. It’s going to be all right, I swear it.
- Nail down the requirements for the piece you’ll be writing: goal, topic, focus keyphrase, audience, voice, and length.
- Review sample blogs, e-books, white papers, or articles that other members of your team have written (if they exist). Seeing what others have already done is a great way to understand what will be expected of you.
- Coordinate an interview time with the subject matter expert you’ll be interviewing. If you’re writing a short piece, schedule 30 minutes. If you’re writing a longer piece, schedule 60 minutes. No one will complain if the interview wraps up early.
- Do your research. Pull together some baseline information on the topic, including anything written on the topic already written by your company or by the subject matter expert in particular. In addition, build a series of questions that you want to ask during the interview.
- Bring a laptop or a notebook to the interview. Also bring a recorder. If the person you’re interviewing is comfortable with it, record the interview. You’ll find it extremely helpful to review the recording afterward.
- Begin the interview by acknowledging your lack of expertise on the topic. Explain that you’ll ask a bunch of questions in order to make sure you understand the topic and the interviewee’s personal take on that topic. Also clarify that your goal is to make the interviewee’s job easy by putting their thoughts down on paper for them.
- Ask every question on your list and then some. Don’t pretend you understand information that’s confusing. Don’t hesitate to ask a question a different way. Climb through every door and window in order to capture the information you need.
- Ask for visuals and other information. If the interviewee references a report, ask for a copy. If they talk about innovative features of an app they developed, ask them to show you. If they mention they have other resources on the topic, ask them to send them to you.
- Conclude the interview by aligning on next steps. Ask if you can call, email, or text if you have further questions. Explain that you’ll draft the piece, share it with the interviewee, and iterate based on their feedback.
Now, Start Doing Subject Matter Expert Interviews!
And that’s it. But that’s a lot. Fortunately, practice makes perfect, and eventually you’ll get comfortable with the process — and with knowing that you don’t have to be an expert on what you’re writing to be a great writer.
Quite the opposite, in fact. What you need is to tap into every inquisitive bone in your body and find the courage (later, the confidence) to ask every question you can muster. Most people don’t ask probing questions, and most don’t listen to the valuable information smart people share.
But, as I said, that’s not you.
Now, arise, go forth and conquer. I have faith in you.
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