A human brain linked up to a talk-to-text machine

A common early step in the pre-writing process — especially when dealing with technical topics — is to interview a subject matter expert (SME). Not to be confused with Captain Hook’s sidekick, an SME (typically pronounced by spelling out each letter, i.e., “S-M-E”) is a brainy person with specialized knowledge. For example, you might be asked to talk with the engineer who designed a new product, an experienced sales representative or the executive who heads up a particular division.

Although SMEs are smart people — often very smart — they tend to be more at home in their area of specialization than they are with marketing. Many also use a lot of jargon when talking about their specialty, to the point where they almost seem to be speaking another language (or at least a very different dialect). 

If you’re lucky, your SME will have had a bit of media training. More often, however, your job will involve some level of “Geek-to-English translation” to make the SME’s insights comprehensible and interesting to readers who don’t share their professional background.

What’s more, SMEs tend to be very busy people who are sometimes anxious about being interviewed. It can be tricky to schedule interviews and follow-ups, so it’s best to make the most of the valuable time you get with them. So how can you do that?

Here are nine tips I’ve learned from conducting hundreds of SME interviews over the years:

1. Know your goals

Before you have any contact with one or more SMEs, it’s important to set clear goals about what you’re trying to accomplish. Who is the intended audience? What do they need or want? What are the goals for the pieces you’ll be writing? Whatever you’re hoping to achieve, having goals top-of-mind will help you keep your SMEs focused on details that support the desired results.

2. Come prepared

Be sure to review any background material you’ve received prior to the interview. The more you know before the call, the more time you’ll have to focus on the knowledge your SME has to share. If you don’t receive any background, try to spend a little time researching the topic you’ll be discussing. Either way, even a small amount of prep time will give you a better idea of what you don’t know going in, which can and should guide your approach to the interview. 

Once you have some perspective, draw up a list of questions for the SME. (If you have time, it can be helpful to share your questions beforehand so the SME knows what to expect.) That said, don’t go into the interview assuming that your list is set in stone. Personally, I’ve learned that like most interviews, the natural course of conversation can change my perspective — making some of my original questions irrelevant.

3. Put your SMEs at ease

Some SMEs have a lot of experience talking to customers, journalists and marketers, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. And an SME who’s been misquoted or misrepresented by a writer in the past may come to an interview with a few “walls” up. You can help ease these concerns by letting the SME know upfront that it’s your job to make them and/or their product look good.

4. Leverage your background — or lack thereof

If you know the topic well, or have experience writing about it, summarize your background in a sentence or two when you introduce yourself. Many technical people prefer to deal with other technical people; SMEs are often more relaxed if they know a writer won’t need them to explain everything. 

Strangely enough, the reverse isn’t necessarily a disadvantage. If you admit that you don’t know anything about their specialty (apart from whatever you’ve absorbed from any background material), SMEs are more likely to explain technical concepts in language that can help you and your readers understand what they’re talking about. 

Either way, look for analogies and comparisons that can help your readers understand abstract or complicated ideas. SMEs sometimes have these ready to go, but you can also suggest them. For example, I once described how much an industrial robot could lift by quoting the exact weight it was rated for from the spec sheet, but added the phrase: “about the weight of a medium-sized car”, which made it easier for readers to put that value in perspective.

5. Go fishing for excitement

SMEs know all about the features of the products and services they work on. Those details are important, but they’re not what ultimately will make the sale. A key part of your job as “translator” is to tease out the details that matter to your intended audience. Benefits are a step in the right direction, but what you’re really looking for are the things that inspire passion. Why will the customer care?  

A textbook example of this can be found in the history of the self-starter. Before Charles Kettering invented it, most automobiles had to be hand-cranked to start the engine. Here are three ways to look at this innovation:

  • Feature: The self-starter ignites the engine without a crank.
  • Benefit: People who don’t have the upper body strength to crank-start an engine can start a car with a self-starter. It’s also safer and you’re less likely to get your hands dirty.
  • Passion: In 1910, Byron Carter was killed trying to help a woman whose car had stalled on a bridge. His chivalry was poorly repaid when the engine backfired and spun the crank into his jaw. Carter was a friend of Henry Leland, who was in charge of Cadillac at the time. Leyland was devastated and contacted Charles Kettering, saying words to the effect of, “It’s time to get rid of that d@mn! crank!”

6. Don’t be afraid to ask “dumb” questions

The whole point of an SME interaction is for you to learn from an expert. They know you don’t know everything before the call even begins, so don’t let pride interfere with the process. 

Remember, too, that you’re there as an advocate for the target audience. If you don’t understand what an SME is talking about, your readers probably won’t either. There’s no shame in asking for clarification or an explanation of anything that’s unclear.

7. Beware of jargon and acronyms

Never assume your readers will be familiar with the specialized terms SMEs use or that they can figure them out with a Google search. If you don’t know what a term or acronym means, ask for clarification. This is in everyone’s best interest.

Before you scoff at this advice, consider that the top hits I got when searching for “SME” at the time of this writing were:

  • A nonprofit organization supporting the manufacturing industry
  • An engineering/consulting firm
  • The Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration, and
  • Multiple definitions of the term “small and medium-sized enterprises”

“Subject matter expert” didn’t even show up on the first page of results.

If possible, try to keep these barriers to communication out of your final copy altogether. If not, make sure any critical terms are defined in ways your readers will understand and explain what any acronyms stand for the first time they appear.

8. Open the door to the unexpected

I end every interview with the same question:  
“Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that would be helpful for our audience to know?” 

The answer may well be: “No, I think we’ve covered everything.” Often, however, the SME will respond with an insight you may not have considered before. This question can even “unlock” people — especially if they’re nervous or shy — by making them feel heard and respected.  

In my experience, some of the most interesting and relevant insights frequently result from this question. Occasionally this is even where the “real” interview begins.

9. Always thank your SMEs

SMEs are not only valuable to you as a writer or interviewer; they’re usually valuable to a lot of other people — not to mention the projects they’re taking time away from to talk to you. Always end your interview by expressing your thanks for that time, pointing out any specific contributions you found particularly useful or informative. You may or may not ever talk to the same SME again; but if you do, they’re likely to remember how the interaction went. Expressing your sincere appreciation can help set you up for future success.

For best results, think like a team

SMEs know things you can’t learn from most people. In fact, if you’re writing about something they’ve designed themselves, they’re likely to have insights no one else can tell you. Although this can make them seem a little intimidating, don’t let it hold you back. As much as SMEs may know about their respective specialization, they may not be certain what information will best serve their organization’s goals.
Ultimately, it’s part of your role as an interviewer to help uncover the details that will lead to a compelling message. Think of the process as a partnership between specialists in two different disciplines: technical material (the SME) and marketing communication (you). Manage this process well and your SMEs will come to respect you as an expert in your own field — one they’ll turn to more readily once you’ve earned their trust.