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Field Notes

Field Notes #63: 10 Tips for Interviewing SMEs

Field Notes #000: 10 tips for interviewing SMEs

#1: Avoid the large group call

It might seem like a more efficient use of your time to speak with multiple SMEs at once. After all, finding time in everyone’s schedules is half the battle when booking interviews. But I promise you won’t regret limiting interview attendance to one or two SMEs. 

It’s more difficult to personally connect with your interviewee when you’re in a large group. If you’ve done your research (see tip #3), you should already have some knowledge of the industry—enough to grant you some talking points beyond your prepared questions. 

When you have a personalized one-on-one conversation, the interviewee feels more comfortable sharing their hot takes. Here is where you find those nuggets of wisdom that are often the best angles for your content. 

#2: Know your audience

You’ll have different questions for a CMO than you do for a product marketing manager. As you create your list of questions, keep in mind your interviewee’s areas of expertise. Have a sense of your interviewee’s level of knowledge, so you ask questions that land squarely within their wheelhouse.

See if you can’t find those topics that make their eyes sparkle. Give their LinkedIn a read to see what conversations they join. Do they have a blog? A newsletter? Have they guest starred on podcasts or guest posted on blogs? 

Your interview conversation doesn’t have to be all business. In fact, I would recommend avoiding an interview that feels too scripted. Create space for you and your interviewee to chat as people before diving into the interview topic. 

#3: Do your research

I honestly can’t understate the importance of research leading up to your SME interviews. It builds the foundation on which you’ll conduct the entire interview. The trick is doing the right research. 

Make sure to cover the basics. Understand what the company is all about, their brand, and audience. Reading internal documentation, blogs and social media posts, and asking questions early in the engagement should handle most of this. If they have a help center or product documentation, go there to learn about everything they offer.

Now, go even further. Catch yourself up to speed on any controversial or trending topics in the industry. Observe conversations happening in their space to get a sense of what’s preoccupying people’s minds. All this information provides amazing context for your conversation. 

#4: Come prepared with only a few questions

I usually walk into each interview with 4 to 5 main questions and another 3-ish on deck. That’s it. 

The questions are open-ended. I’m setting the interviewee up to talk through a broad topic. As the interviewer, it’s my job to find key points within their responses and ask them to drill down even further. A good interviewer finds the story within the SME’s answers and uses it to guide the rest of the interview. 

Have your questions on hand, but don’t be glued to them. Go off script. If you find a great talking point, lean into it until you feel like you’ve explored it thoroughly. 

#5: Record, record, record

Ask your interviewee if they’re cool with you recording the call. As long as they’re okay with it, there should be no reason why you don’t record the meeting. Better yet, use a tool that automatically generates a transcript at the end of the call. 

I promise you will thank yourself for documenting the conversation in multiple formats. You should still take notes throughout the talk, but they won’t catch everything. When you inevitably notice a gap in your notes (speaking from experience) or need a direct quote, you can return to the recording and transcript to fill in the knowledge gaps. 

#6: Give your interviewee some info beforehand

You don’t need to give them a detailed list of all your questions—remember, you should avoid sticking to your questions if the conversation veers in a different and helpful direction. However, when you schedule the interview, send them a few ideas and angles you plan to explore during the conversation. This way your SME has some time to stew over their thoughts on those angles so your interview can be as productive as possible. 

#7: Push SMEs to dig deep into their unique insights

You’ll encounter SMEs who are hesitant to speak their minds. Perhaps they’re not sure how far they should dig into a topic or they don’t want to overwhelm you with too much industry jargon. Here is where speaking with fewer people at once and creating a comfortable space to explore big ideas comes in handy. You should be on the lookout for those big ideas because they could be a unique angle for your content. Push your SME to dig into them further. Ask them questions like:

  • You mentioned [topic]. Can you expand on that?
  • How do you notice [topic] playing out within your industry?
  • How does your team think about [topic]?
  • What direction do you think [topic] is headed?

If you’re new to interviewing, it might be helpful to have a couple of these expansion questions in mind before the conversation. 

#8: …at the same time, give them space to spitball

Here is where you pose a question and step back. Don’t be afraid of silence as your SME considers their answer. Don’t chime in with more questions or ideas for how they might answer the question. Give them space to explore these ideas and share their insights.

That said, it can be challenging when you have an SME who speaks off-the-cuff and leaps between ideas. It’s sometimes just a factor of interviewing people who are genuinely excited about what they do. While you might have to work harder to focus the conversation, know that a passionate SME will give you the quotes and insights that make your article something special. 

#9: Compile and review your notes directly after

It’s always best to organize your interview notes right after you’ve said goodbye. Don’t wait until the next week or even the next day to review your notes. Better yet, review your notes and extract core ideas you want to focus on within your content, direct quotes, or places where you may have more questions. 

Now, you can quickly send any follow-up questions to be answered async without delaying production. 

#10: Don’t be afraid to send follow-up questions

Most SMEs are happy to speak with you and want to help. 

They also want to make sure you’ve accurately captured what they said, especially if you’re using direct quotes. Follow-up questions can be anything from filling in the gaps to fact-checking. 

Be reasonable with how many questions you send. Consider batching them all together in one document with a deadline attached. Clearly communicate how you want them to respond and when you need responses to ensure, again, there’s no delay in production. 

Want more insights like this? Connect with me on LinkedIn.

  1. cf #63: a key skill to master in the next 6 months  – If you aren’t already subscribed to contentfolks, you really should. This one highlights interviewing as a skill every marketer should master. 
  2. Lindsay Tjepkema (Casted) on Doing More with Less, B2B Podcasting, and Human-Centric Marketing – A recent episode of The Long Game that covers the evolution of B2B marketing and the value of podcasting. 
  3. How to Interview Someone For an Article: Step-by-Step Guide – My colleague Nia wrote a thoughtful and thorough guide to conducting interviews. Give it a read.