Whether you’re writing a magazine feature, reporting for a newspaper or creating marketing content for corporate clients, subject matter expert interviews often form the backbone of your writing. Knowing how to facilitate great subject matter expert interviews and elicit stellar quotes can be the difference between “meh” and exceptional copy.
My colleague and senior editor, Michael Fuchs, recently shared his top seven tips for effective storytelling. Today, we’re sharing tips on getting the best from your subject matter experts (SMEs) from Pace’s Tina Firesheets. Tina has been interviewing people since she was 18 years old—in the role of journalist, freelance writer, magazine editor and, most recently, associate creative director.
1. Prep Ahead of Time
Plenty of nuts-and-bolts preparation goes into a smooth interview. First, you want to plan when and how you will do it.
“My absolute favorite way to do an interview is still face to face in that person’s environment,” says Tina. “Because you pick up a lot of nonverbal things based on their surroundings; you pick up how they interact with other people.” However, she notes, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, we rarely have that luxury, in which case she likes to do “whatever is most comfortable and convenient for the person I’m interviewing.”
That accommodation stretches to the interview medium as well. “If I know that I’m going to interview a doctor who works an odd schedule, for example, then they may prefer to do the interview as an email exchange. So, it’s adaptive to the SME,” Tina says.
Finally, make sure to audio record everything so you are not distracted by taking notes during the conversation. It’s important to get the subject’s permission to record them, either ahead of time when you schedule the interview or right at the beginning of the talk, and preferably in writing (e.g., email) or on tape. In the event an SME doesn’t want to be recorded, make sure to double-check with them if they want to be quoted in the article to begin with. If they confirm that they do in fact want to be quoted, then be prepared to take notes as fast as you can in whichever way you prefer sans voice recorder. If the SME doesn’t want to be quoted in the article, then it may be time to reconsider the role of that SME in your content.
2. Do Your Research
Strong SME interviews are based on good questions—questions that are customized to the particular person you’re interviewing. It’s always a good idea to google the individual and check their LinkedIn profile just as a baseline. That said, some interviews require more background research than others.
“If it’s something I really don’t know very much about, like thought leadership about sustainability, I will do a ton of research,” Tina says. “Other subjects, such as food, require much less.”
You may end up doing loads of research and becoming a near-expert on this person and/or their area of expertise, and that is fantastic background knowledge. However, you don’t necessarily want all that detail to come through in your questions, as you’ll see in tip No. 3.
3. Let It Flow
First, it’s a good idea to send your questions to the SME ahead of time so they have time to prepare and craft their answers.
Many writers like to start each interview by asking the subject the correct spelling of their name and how they would like to be identified (such as their title). Once you get these administrative tasks out of the way, you’re ready to dive in.
Tina recommends starting with a broad, open-ended question, such as “Tell me about your project/your initiative, etc.” This allows you to get the broad story you’re looking for in their own words.
“When I was very young and inexperienced, I felt like I had to come [to the interview] already knowing everything,” Tina says. “But when you come feeling like you already know a lot, you may not be really listening for what you can learn. In some ways, you’re just trying to validate or confirm what you’ve already found in your research.” Come with an open mind and let the subject fill in the blanks.
When you are winding up the interview, it’s always a good idea to ask, “Is there anything else you think I should know?” or something similar. There may be some important fact or story you haven’t touched on.
4. Make Room for Going Off-Script
As important as it is to have a prepared set of questions (including those key opening and closing ones), it’s also important to know when to go off-script.
“I like to have my questions pulled up and let them guide me like a road map. But I don’t feel I have to stick to that order,” Tina says. “If I find later that I missed something, I will follow up by email; I am not afraid to do that.” And if your subject starts to veer off in an interesting direction, by all means follow them. The detour could lead to some great unforeseen information and/or quotes.
5. Don’t Prolong a Bad Interview
Of course it’s always the intention to facilitate positive, informative subject matter expert interviews. But once in a while, things don’t go as planned. You may not be talking to the right person. Or maybe you got the right person, but on the wrong day.
When you can tell that an SME isn’t being forthcoming, or the interview isn’t going to be fruitful, “Don’t prolong the suffering,” says Tina. “I say something like, ‘I feel like this is a good start. I’d like to think about what we’ve talked about and maybe come back with more questions. Is that okay?’ and wind it up.” Then, you can always follow up with an email, or even approach a different person, if necessary.
Realize the Full Potential of Your Copy—Start With Successful and Efficient Interviews
Whether you are grabbing a pull quote, creating a basic Q&A article, or crafting a long-form feature—as a writer and content creator, you rely on interviews. Use these five tips for successful and efficient subject matter expert interviews that will lead you to better, more fully realized copy.
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