8 Ways To Ensure Successful Subject Matter Expert Interviews


I remember the anxiety vividly.

It was one of my first times interviewing a subject matter expert (SME) for an article I was writing, and we were “done” going through the list of questions I’d prepared after about 10 minutes.

Even though I really didn’t get clear answers to my questions, I assured the SME I had what I needed to avoid revealing the stress I was feeling. Afterward, I looked at my notes and asked myself, “What on earth am I going to do with this?”

Thankfully, I’ve learned how to have more productive SME interviews since then. In fact, we’ve discussed this topic on a few occasions, and we’ve found several best practices that contribute to successful SME interviews.

So, are you ready for better SME interviews? These tips will help!

Before The Interview

1. Prepare yourself.

While your SME’s knowledge of the subject at hand is a critical piece of a successful interview, the most important part of the interview process is actually your preparation. Before the interview, consider the topic and the direction you want to take the article. Have at least 3-5 questions prepared for the main part of the interview and some follow-up questions for the end.

2. Share the article topic with your SME.

Your SME probably won’t have a lot of time to prepare something before the interview, but giving them a heads up about the article’s topic gives them the opportunity to at least organize their thoughts before you meet, minimizing a potential feeling of unpreparedness on the spot.

Give them the working title of your article and a couple sentences explaining where you see the article going—but not much more information. Giving your SME too much information, like your complete preliminary article outline, could negatively influence how they answer your questions. It’s best if they follow their own thought process. The SME can and should take the article in the direction they think is best. After all, the article is based on what they know, not what you know.

Before you write any copy for your website—or anyone else’s—make sure you read this.

During The Interview

3. Get to know your SME.

If you’re going to converse with an SME on a regular basis, pay close attention to your interviews and get to know their personality. I’m sure you’ve noticed that some people give you great answers when you ask very specific questions, while others give their best information when they can just talk freely about a topic. So, present your questions differently over the course of several interviews so you can learn how your SME interviews best.

It’s also helpful to know whether your SME is someone inside your client’s company or if they’re an outside, third-party source. While an SME outside your client’s company will know much about the topic of the article, they may not fully understand the purpose of the article and how it impacts your client’s business. To make your time profitable with a third-party SME, send them a list of questions before your interview so they’ll know what to expect and what you’ll be discussing specifically.

4. Blow the whistle.

Sometimes your SME will show their passion for the industry by going off on a tangent that isn’t directly related to your article topic. When this happens, it’s your job to politely get the SME back on track.

I have to mention, though, before you pump the brakes, take a moment to consider the situation: If your SME isn’t answering your questions at all and is instead  talking about a different topic entirely, then yes, guide them back. But, if your SME is answering your questions but is simply taking the topic down a different path than you intended, that is OK! Let them continue in their thoughts. Like I mentioned earlier, the article is based on their knowledge, not yours.

If they do take the topic in a different direction than you’d planned, pay close attention to their comments so you can ask the proper follow-up questions, fill in any gaps they may have missed while talking, and get a thorough understanding of the direction they see the article going.

5. Address the buyer persona.

Some article topics have a pretty concrete and obvious direction. For example, “X Tips For Writing Killer Headlines” is pretty clear! But something like “Switching Your Risk Management Software” could go several different ways.

When your topic doesn’t have an obvious direction, address the buyer persona the article is written for. Ask your SME a question like, “Why would someone like [the buyer persona] be searching for an article like this?” to get their take on what the persona is experiencing and ultimately searching for.

6. Let the SME talk.

If your SME usually prepares for your interviews or knows the topic you’re discussing inside and out, just let them talk. This is also a wise tactic if your interview isn’t going as well as you had hoped—letting them talk and share their thoughts freely may result in the SME answering the questions you’d planned to talk about.

And, if you think of questions as the SME is talking, jot them down to ask when they’ve finished. While it may not affect everyone, asking questions in the middle of someone’s train of thought may distract or derail them.

7. Record the interview.

Have you ever tried to listen to what your SME was saying while jotting down notes that would make sense later and processing the information so you could have thoughtful follow-up questions? It’s impossible! Recording the interview frees you to listen, process, and think of helpful follow-up questions. (Just make sure you get your SME’s permission to record!)

After The Interview

8. Say “thank you.”

A brief email to your SME expressing your appreciation and gratitude for their time shows that you realize they’re busy and are thankful that they took time to help you. If possible, include the link to your published article so they can see what your interview accomplished!

While I wish I could say these tips will give you perfect SME interviews every time, they won’t. (You can’t control every aspect of the interview!) But, I am certain that as you keep implementing them, these best practices will help you have less anxiety-stricken and more successful SME interviews in no time.