4 Ways to Make Your SME Interviews More Productive
Interviews with subject matter experts (SMEs) are the lifeblood of any thought-leadership project and, arguably, the most important part of the content creation process. Their ideas will serve as the cornerstone of your content. Whether the SME is a portfolio manager of a global institutional asset manager or an analyst for a boutique firm, these folks are very busy. So you as the interviewer need to make sure that your time with them is efficient and productive. Interviewing, however, is often more difficult than meets the eye. Put simply, it’s not as easy as the reporters on TV make it seem. Furthermore, even though there are many similarities between journalism and thought leadership, there are a few nuances that come with thought-leadership interviews that are especially important to consider. Here are four things to remember the next time you’re interviewing SMEs.
Interviewing is a skill, and like any skill it needs to be cultivated with practice and preparation. While some of your favorite interviewers in media may seem like they have a natural proclivity for the practice, they aren’t just winging it. Coming up with questions on the fly isn’t an option.
Once your time with an SME is scheduled, generate a list of thoughtful questions and talking points for the interview. Moreover, use this time to research the SME in detail. Learn as much detail as possible about the SMEs’ background, education, and career path. Most importantly, review any white papers, articles, or presentations they have published on the topic you’re writing about. This shows the SMEs that you did your homework, which will allow them to feel more comfortable during the interview.
Finally, make sure the SMEs are prepared as well. Send them your list of questions so they can begin to think of their responses. Alternatively, you can ask the SMEs to send you any talking points or other background materials that they feel will help you steer the conversation in the right direction.
Take Stock of Your Environment
Are you conducting the interview over the phone or in-person? Are you interviewing just one SME or a group of SMEs? What type of room will the interview take place in? These might not seem like important questions to ask heading into an interview, but they can make a big difference. We’ve found that in-person interviews tend to be more conversational.
The power of face-to-face communication between two humans instantly makes for a different type of interview—one that may bear more meaningful responses to your questions. On the other hand, phone interviews can be perfectly appropriate (and effective). In many cases, offering to conduct the interview over the phone increases your chances of finding a time when the SME is available, so the convenience is a major benefit of phone interviews. But the lack of face-to-face communication means that the interviewer should be intentional in thinking of ways to break the ice and establish rapport at the outset of the conversation.
The in-person vs. over-the-phone decision becomes more critical when you’re interviewing a group of SMEs at the same time as opposed to interviewing just one person. We’ve found that group interviews are far easier to navigate in person. You can use nonverbal cues to direct your question to a specific person. Similarly, the SMEs in a room together can more easily coordinate their responses. On the phone, however, SMEs may feel hesitant to talk; each may be waiting for others to answer a question.
Record the Interview—If You Can
We strongly recommend recording the interview if the SME is agreeable to it. (The vast majority of times the SME will be.) It’s important to inform the SME at the outset that you’ll be recording the interview. There are many reasons that recording the interview is helpful. The most obvious is that you want to be mentally present during the actual interview and not frantically trying to write down or capture everything the SME says. To be sure, you should be taking some notes during the interview, but not to the point that you’re not actively listening to the responses and asking appropriate follow-up questions.
Also, for in-person interviews, you want to make sure you’re making eye contact with the SME. Second, once the actual interview is over, you’ll likely want to go back to the recording to ensure your interpretation of certain pieces of information is accurate. Or, if you’re quoting an SME directly in your writing, you want to make sure you’re accurately capturing their exact words within the context of the conversation. Recording the interview may help create a more trustworthy interview environment. You can let the SME know that recording the interview helps you capture all of the details accurately.
This should reassure the SME that you’ll get the story straight. Finally, we recommend using a “belt and suspenders” approach when it comes to your recording device. If I had a dime for every time my laptop’s built-in recording device froze or my hand-held recorder ran out of batteries or reached its memory limit in the middle of an interview, I’d be a rich man. (Well, not quite, but I’d be able to buy a comically overpriced cup of coffee from one of those fancy Starbucks Reserve places.)
While you want to get as much input information as possible during the official SME interviews, it’s likely you’ll need to re-connect with them once you start writing to ensure you’re interpreting things accurately or to get the SME’s input on new questions that arise. At the end of the interview, be sure to communicate this to the SME.
Then, once you begin the writing and editing stage of your process, you can quickly check in with the SME to tie up any loose ends or get much-needed clarification on topics or concepts initially discussed in the interview. … As important as SME interviews are, they are just one step in the writing process. For a complete, step-by-step guide to WFC’s official thought-leadership creation process, click the link below.