How to Interview Subject Matter Experts: 24 Actionable Tactics

How to Interview Subject Matter Experts: 24 Actionable Tactics

By Joel Widmer | Content Marketing

Dec 17
subject matter expert interview questions

Most business owners and employees have a ton of knowledge they'll never share with anyone outside their network.

It’s locked up and they have no idea of its value.

Many of them think they shouldn’t be sharing their knowledge because they're not great writers.

Not true.

What it really means is, they need to find the right style to share their knowledge.

What Is an SME & Why Should You Interview One?

A subject-matter expert (SME) is someone who's an authority in a particular topic. Expert, specialist, thought-leader or nerd are all terms that can apply here. It could be the owner of a company, a consultant or just someone from a certain department.

If you think that sounds vague or that it could apply to almost anyone in a company, it's because it can.

That's the beauty of this.

You can find a subject matter expert on almost anything. Each employee will be an expert on something, which gives you the chance to highlight unique expertise throughout a company. 

Someone doesn't have to be the best in the company on a given subject. But subject matter experts are typically better than 80% of people.

At Fluxe, we interview subject matter experts to mine for their best ideas, refine them into terms their audience resonates with and communicate those ideas on the right channels. 

So in this post, we're going to help you improve your SME mining process. Step number one? We'll help you ask better questions using a few of our templates.

Then we'll break down the process for before, during and after your SME interview so you get the most from each step of the process.

Effective Subject Matter Expert Interview Questions

The quality of the material you'll get from an interview depends on the quality of the questions you ask.

The key is to leave questions open-ended. The last thing you want are one-word answers from someone with a wealth of knowledge.

Think: Who, what, why, where, when, how. If you cover these bases in your SME interview questions, you'll have great material to work with afterwards.

Here are some prompts to help your questions move in the right direction.

  • What’s your philosophy on... ?
  • Describe the situation that the reader is in and the pain points that causes.
  • What happens if your readers follow the approach you just shared?
  • What happens if they don't?
  • Why is that approach so effective?
  • Share an anecdotal example of this to help it click for the reader.
  • What controversial views do you have on this subject and why?
  • Can you think of a good analogy to illustrate this point?
  • What advice would you give to someone just starting out on this?

Now that you have your questions down, let's get into how to best prepare for before, during and after the interview. 

Preparing For the Interview

The preparation stage helps you get the maximum value from the SME interview process while being respectful of the other person's time.

These steps will help you go into the interview feeling prepared and confident.

1. Provide Instructions For How to Join the Call

This should only be necessary the first time you speak with an SME. Don't assume they're a tech whiz like you and provide clear written instructions on how to attend the interview.

2. Prepare Specific Questions for Each Interview

Make each question count. You should have a good reason for asking each one so it ties into the content you're creating.

If you ask your questions well, the average answer an SME gives on a phone interview is 3-10 minutes long. So if you're uncertain a question will add value, skip it.

3. Understand the Fundamentals

When researching, make sure you understand the topic enough to know when to ask for more information. Familiarize yourself with the terminology so you know when a deeper aspect of the subject arises so you can ask questions that dig deeper.

Wikipedia and industry publications are great resources to browse if you're unfamiliar with the topic. YouTube also has videos giving quick tutorials on the fundamentals of just about everything.

4. Check Their Resume for Accomplishments

Many SMEs will have a history of impressive industry accomplishments, but not all will be keen to brag about them. Hit up Google and see what they've done that you could bring up in the call.

  • Search their name in quotes to find references
  • Check their employment history on LinkedIn

5. Set up Call Recording

Recording your interviews is essential. So essential, in fact, it's good to have a fail-safe recording method.

Apps such as Zoom or Skype are ideal because the call quality is high, and both have built-in recording features. Something like Free Sound Recorder can be an excellent backup.

Oh, and sound check your setup BEFORE the call so you know it works and you don't need to fumble around with unfamiliar software when the time comes.

6. Send the SME Your Questions Ahead of Time

Send your prepared questions to your subject matter expert ahead of time to give them a heads-up, writing a succinct list so they don't have a huge wall of text to read through.

This tactic helps create fluid SME interviews, especially if they're not so comfortable with the process.

7. Set a Time Limit

When you send those questions, also mention a time frame to your SME. Interview lengths can get out of hand, especially if it's your first time working together. 

When we interview CEO's, our objective is to create one month of blog content in a one-hour interview. If you follow the steps in this preparation section, you should have no trouble achieving similar results, even if it takes just a little practice. 

During the Interview

There's no need to be intimidated during an SME interview.

You'll find that most SMEs love talking shop, so sitting down to share their wealth of knowledge is often something they enjoy.

Don't be afraid to steer the conversation. You're the one interviewing, so you know the angle you want to deliver for the content to be valuable. 

Here's how to stay on track.

1. Let Them Know You're Recording

In some states the law states that recorded calls must be announced to the other party along with the reason why.

Wikipedia has a complete list of call recording laws by country and state.

2. Warm up the Conversation

This is especially true if it's the SME's first interview. Take a few minutes to make them feel at ease. Ask how they're doing and let them know to relax and enjoy the process.

3. Check if Any Topics Are off-Limits

It's always good to ask your SME if anything is off-limits that they don't want to talk about. It can help them relax and it's shows you're a considerate interviewer.

4. Give Them the Big Picture

Let them know the context behind the topic, why you're writing about it, how it'll help and what the big picture/vision is for the content

We like to summarize this with a single-sentence goal for each topic. 

5. Take Notes

Notes help keep both you and your SME on track. While this is an activity for during the interview, it's good to have your notes document prepared before the interview starts.

Note-taking helps you get everything you need during the call and quickly spot gaps where you need to prod more.

Be careful not to let note-taking get in the way of your listening and question asking.

6. Ask for Lots of Examples

Asking for example when your SME makes a statement is a simple way to boost your content's detail and make articles engaging and valuable. 

Ask for an example when new points or ideas are introduced so you can later use them to clarify and drive points home. This is especially helpful for complex topics.

7. Ask for Clarification When Needed

If your SME has just explained something and you're not sure what they meant, it can be uncomfortable to ask for clarification. But if you don't, you'll regret it when creating the content later. Make it easier by using these phrases:

  • I'm not sure what that word means, could you explain it?
  • How does that relate to the previous point you mentioned?
  • Can you share something to help the readers see why that's so important?

By reminding your SME you're creating content for readers without the same level of knowledge, the interview can continue to flow smoothly.

8. Be Strategic About Your Prefacing

Most of the time prefacing ends up going on a rant and isn't helpful for the SME. If you absolutely must preface a question, keep it short. We aim for two sentences or less. 

9. Keep Your Energy High

Your energy is contagious. The trick I use is to view the topic as something I'm super interested in and excited about.

I want my energy to be high throughout the call to set the pace for the SME because I know they'll match my state.

10. Avoid Suggesting Answers

When asking open-ended questions, it can be tempting to offer options on how to answer.

We often see this in interviewers trying to prove themselves or establish legitimacy. But it just comes off like they're trying to steal the show.

Only do this if you're asked for clarification.

11. Course Correct When Your SME Goes off-Track

Sometimes SME interviews can get off-track. But don't be afraid to return to the target topic, especially since you're working on a schedule. 

Use phrases such as "I really liked that last point, let's expand on that a little..."

Being mindful of the flow of conversation in this way helps for a smoother interview rather than announcing that "we're way off topic here" or something similar.

One thing I found that works really well is to preface upfront that if they get off track, you will gently bring them back to the topic.

And it's OK to get off track because a lot of times those rabbit trails can lead to other great pieces of content. So if they do get off track, let them know that you will make a note of that topic and we can revisit it at another time. 

12. Be Considerate if Something Comes Up

If you sense your SME is distracted on the call, ask if everything's okay and if they need to take care of anything before you proceed.

Muddling through an unfocused interview won't create good content.

13. Let Them Know What Comes Next..

At the end of your call, it's good to let your SME know what's coming next.  Whether it's someone else writing a first draft before it's sent to them for approval or something else...

After the Interview

If you followed the above sections, congratulations. The hard part is over. Finally, here are a few tips to help with the content creation process. 

1. Transcribe the Interview

Having interviews transcribed provides an easy way to reference words mentioned or points in the discussion without having to scrub through audio.

2. Set Expectations for the Editing Process

If your SME is someone you plan to interview again, mention that the first few drafts may take a little more of their attention while you dial in your workflow together, but it'll get easier after that.

3. Lay Ground Rules for Feedback

If part of your process is sending content back to the SME for edits or approval, things can quickly turn into an endless back-and-forth session of rewrites.

Specify exactly the type of feedback you're looking for, including an example or two to clarify.

4. Take Notes on the SME's Communication Style

As your project draws to a close, take notes on the SME's communication style so you can engage with them more on their own terms in the future. For example, are they:

  • More clinical and textbook-like
  • More personal with lots of life examples
  • More opinionated with lots of rants

Got Questions?

Even when interviewing subject matter experts, creating good content is a lot of work.

And we didn't even cover search engine optimization to grow your audience and other key pieces to generate leads.

If you have a question about this, let me know in the comments. After all, this is our bread and butter!


About the Author

Joel Widmer is the Founder & CEO of Fluxe Digital Marketing—a content marketing shop that helps smart businesses create, produce and promote their content through a unique one-on-one interview process. When he’s not working, Joel can be found trying new restaurants with his wife, son, and daughter.

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