Talking to SMEs: How to make the most of their time (and yours)

18 Dec 2019


When it comes to adding clout to a piece of writing, fewer things help more than talking to a subject matter expert (SME). They know the ins and outs of what you’re writing about and they know it well. They are the expert after all.

The context and technical knowledge that an SME brings to a piece of writing is undeniable. The journalism world is effectively built on that principle. It’s hard to find a story in the newspaper that doesn’t contain at least one expert’s words on the matter, and for good reason. Imagine how ineffective a piece about the economy would be without a quote or two from someone who spends their lives living and breathing economics?

But, getting the information out of them can be a challenge sometimes. SMEs, whether they know it or not, take a lot of what they know for granted. They’ve immersed themselves in that world for so long that they forget that not everyone has that same level of knowledge.

This can make interviewing them hard. They can end up providing answers to questions that aren’t helpful, or they don’t go into enough detail. It becomes a situation where you end up feeling frustrated by the responses or, worse, the SME starts feeling like their time is being wasted.

All is not lost, though. While sometimes the problem stems from the SME just not knowing how to get out of their head, a lot of the time it’s just a matter of not running a tight interview. Being unprepared or asking questions that don’t guide the conversation in the right direction can hinder your ability to have a good interview with an SME.

When handled properly, SMEs are highly engaging and full of useful information. The following tips will help you get the most of out your conversation with an SME.

Preparing for the interview

This stage is probably the most critical stage of the interview because the trick to getting the most out of an SME is to know how to run a good interview.

This goes beyond just asking good questions. It’s about making sure that you don’t waste the SME’s time. It’s keeping the interview on track, so you don’t end up miles away from the topic you’re writing about. And, yes. It’s also about asking good questions.

The first thing you should do is be prepared.

  • Make sure you’ve got your questions ready to go. Have them written down and organized in such a way that there’s something of a natural flow to the conversation. This isn’t always possible, but the goal is to make the interview feel more like a true conversation, more than an interview. This helps the SME feel a little more relaxed about being interviewed.

  • Make sure all the technical equipment you’re using is working. This includes any video conferencing services you’re using, recording devices,  right down to your pens. Everyone knows that things go wrong from time to time, but sometimes SMEs only have a specific amount of time to dedicate to helping you out and time spent dealing with technical issues cuts into their time.
  • Be early. This is good for a couple of reasons. The first is that if you’re meeting in person, it gives you time to get ready after getting there. It’s normal to get somewhere and feel slightly disorganized about everything after even a short car ride. Allowing yourself an extra few minutes to get organized goes a long way. The same with online meetings or phone calls. Be ready ahead of time. Jump into the conference room early to make sure it’s working. Test the recording device. Make sure nothing is wonky. Every little bit helps when it comes to running a solid interview.

    It also helps to provide as much context about the interview to the SME ahead of time, as possible. You want them to be thinking about what they’re going to say, without going so far as to provide the questions. This helps them focus on off-the-cuff responses to your questions, which are often way more helpful than the answers you get when you send the questions ahead of time.

  • Record the interview and take notes. A recording is your way to go back and revisit the conversation to pull out all the details that you may be fuzzy on. Note-taking is often your backup. Recordings fail. Things go wrong. The last thing you really want to do is go back and ask about a redo. So, take notes. Not only does this help when a recording fails, but note taking also allows you to create silence. Silence makes people uncomfortable and, as a result, they start talking.

    This is when the SME often takes a moment to expand on what they just said, going deeper into the material and following up with details that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise come up. Take a moment the first time it happens to explain that you’re taking notes, then let the silence hang in the air, while you wait for the SME to fill the space with valuable information.

Once things get started

When it’s time to get the interview going, start things off with a bit of small talk. Nothing too deep. Something as simple as, “How’s your day going so far?” is often enough. The point isn’t to have a big, deep conversation about life, but to be friendly enough to soften things up and put the SME at ease. You want this to feel more like a conversation than a job interview.

Remind the SME that you’re not going to be taking up all their time. You’ve got a specific amount of time blocked out for the interview. You can also mention that you’re going to do your best to wrap this up early. This means you’re going to have to keep the conversation on track, but that’s okay. You don’t need to know everything the SME has to say, you just want the bits that are relevant to your topic. If you find the interview drifting off-topic, wait for a pause, then say something like, “So thinking back to…” and ask another question about your topic.

In this stage, you have two main goals: listening and guiding the conversation. You need to listen more than you talk, but the trick isn’t just to be quiet and take notes. It’s to listen for those juicy nuggets of information that make you raise your eyebrows and say, “Cool!” These details are the whole reason you’re having a conversation with the SME. It’s the stuff that doesn’t come up in research. It’s the stuff that helps transform writing from something mediocre into something that informs people on an expert level.

Best of all, you use this stuff to guide the conversation into uncharted territory by listening for those details and asking questions around it.

Asking good questions

Outside of listening, asking good questions is the most important part of talking to SMEs. You want the information that’s inside their heads—the good stuff that they take for granted as common knowledge. Sometimes getting that knowledge out in a way that is understood can be tricky.

SMEs are used to talking to their peers about what they do. They use a lot of jargon. They gloss over certain bits they assume everyone knows. And, sometimes they just aren’t comfortable talking to people, even though they agreed to do the interview. Luckily, good questions can help solve all these problems.

Ask questions that spark interest in your SME and get them talking about the thing they’re passionate about. These questions will vary depending on the kind of writing that you’re doing, but there are some guidelines that you should follow.  

  • Ask opened ended questions. You’re not going to get anywhere if you ask your SME questions that have yes and no answers. They don’t help guide the conversation at all.
  • Ask why a lot. This question is so helpful that a whole process was developed around it. The 5 Whys works because it drills down into the heart of the problem. By constantly asking the question “Why…” you force the SME to explain to think a little bit more about the process they used and why they made the decisions that they did. It’s really helpful at getting more than just a superficial response to your question. Often, after the fifth why, you’ve hit the heart of the problem
  • Don’t be afraid to ask basic questions. They can be a good way to get an SME warmed up for the more in-depth questions. Something simple like, “Tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do?”
  • Don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. The SME is the expert, not you. If you don’t understand something, ask about it, no matter how silly the question may seem. Among other things, if you have those questions, chances are someone else will as well. So ask away.

Sample questions to get things started

When you ask a question, be sure to frame it in relation to the topic. The more specific you are when asking the question, the better. When you start off, asking something like, “What made you do this?” seems like a good question, but phrasing it like this will likely provide a better answer: “What problem were you trying to solve by doing this?” This can be followed up with something like, “Why was this a problem that needed solving?” And so on.

Remember, SMEs don’t typically think about the process they use, they just do the work. You want them to walk you through their solution as thoroughly as possible. Once they’ve answered the question, move them on the next one.

Every interview is going to be different, so the exact questions you ask are going to vary from person to person. Of course, having a list of questions that you can pull from can help get things moving when you’re planning out your interview.

Here are some ideas:

  • How does that happen? 
  • What makes that happen? 
  • Why does that happen?
  • If that doesn’t go wrong, what happens?
  • Can you explain what you mean by that?
  • What challenges did you encounter while doing X?
  • What surprises did you encounter along the way?
  • What’s next?
  • How have people responded to X?
  • What makes this sexy?
  • What are the common mistakes that people make in this area?
  • What are some of the areas that cause the most confusion?
  • What are some of the most common questions you get about this topic?
  • What’s one question that nobody ever asks you, but should?
  • Is there anything that I should have asked you today, but didn’t?

Once you’ve started asking your questions it’s time to stay quiet and let the SME do the talking. The only time you should interject is to ask for clarity on something that’s been said.

If your SME isn’t talking or isn’t being super cooperative, don’t fret. This happens. One way to kick start things is to ask if there’s anyone else they can think of you could talk to. This question can sometimes snap someone out of their head a little and make them realize that they’re not being as helpful as they could be.  

A few things to avoid doing

This will be short and sweet.

  • Don’t be late.
  • Don’t talk more than the SME.
  • Don’t talk over the SME.
  • Don’t let the interview run too long.

Once it’s over

Thank the SME for their time. Ask them if you can follow up if you find you missed a question, or something needs more explaining. And offer to send them the piece once it’s done. And, again, thank them for their time. You want them to know you really appreciated their help.

That’s it. The biggest challenge that you’re likely to face with an SME is getting them to talk. SMEs love what they do and they love talking about what they do. All you have to do is the right questions.

Douglas Paton 
Douglas Paton fell in love with words at an early age and was rarely seen without a book in his hands as a kid. At some point along the way, he picked up a pen and started writing and never looked back. He has been writing professionally for nearly 20 years at this. From writing children’s books to magazine articles, comic books to full-length novels, there’s very little that Douglas hasn’t written in his career. For most of the last 10 years, Douglas has focused on writing educational material for younger readers, writing both fiction and non-fiction for clients such as Scholastic Canada and Nelson Canada. These days, he focuses more on writing content and copy for the web. Douglas has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Ryerson University in Toronto.

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