Eyes on the Prize: Tips for Interviewing Subject Matter Experts

If you’ve interviewed a subject matter expert, you know their insight can really help bring a topic to life. Yet sometimes when a world of experience is available, it can be challenging to know precisely where to guide the discussion. With a little effort (and some tips from seasoned pros!) a productive interview can be easier – we’ll help you get just what you need to create informative and engaging copy.

How to Home in on What’s Important

For content strategists, nothing’s worse than leaving a meeting only to realize you don’t have the right details or even a clear direction for the piece your discussion was meant to inform. Lots of tips and techniques to improve the process are out there. We’ve compiled some of the best into this guide to getting the most from every interview.

Set the Stage Beforehand

1. Do Some Recon.

While you’re familiarizing yourself with the subject matter for your meeting, take time to research your expert too. Their background can spark ideas for questions and lead to more intriguing dialogue or compelling anecdotes.

Take the time to gather a few personal details. Where did they go to college or complete training? What sport or hobby interests them? Are they into travel? Do they support a certain charity?

These details can help build connections and establish rapport. When your meeting includes multiple people, a quick group email is an easy way to obtain a few details from everyone for your pre-meeting brief (we’ll get to that soon!) where you’ll give introductions.

Keep that email brief. Request everyone provide a two-sentence description of their current role (if you don’t already know it), what they need to get out of this meeting, and one or two of those personal background questions. You can also request feedback on specific questions the team may have for the expert, which you can add to your pre-meeting brief.

2. Provide a Pre-Meeting Brief.

During my time in the Army, we used different types of orders to relay important information before an operations meeting. It’s a useful concept for creating an agenda in advance, to ensure the meeting is productive and everyone’s time is respected. This document should:

  • List the names of everyone who will attend the meeting, their title, and their role in the meeting. If there’s an expert, provide a brief description of their relevant background based on your research or the bio they’ve already provided.
  • State the time parameters with a final cutoff. For example, “This meeting will start at 1pm and take approximately an hour and a half. We will end no later than 3pm.”
  • Clearly outline the goal of the meeting, the topics to be discussed, and any information that should be provided before and during.
  • Describe any pertinent background details that might not be common knowledge, such as product information, history, and relationships.
  • IMPORTANT: List all questions to be covered by the expert. (That way the expert can outline their responses, rather than having to search their memory on demand. This ensures you get the information you need.)
  • Set a time limit per question if there’s a large number. Alternatively, you could divide the meeting into 20- to 30-minute sections, if you have two to three general topics to cover.

Download our customizable Pre-Meeting Brief template.

3. Remind Everyone of Video-Call Etiquette.

Even though video-chats and livestream conferences have become the norm, many people still find it nerve-racking. Depending on your team or your expert, it may not be something everyone in the meeting does on a regular basis.

As we go through this transition, technical difficulties and distracting habits are still in the mix. In an online format where sounds and movements tend to be amplified, minor issues like a visually chaotic background or habitual pen-tapping can make it very hard to concentrate, especially in a long meeting.

 A few tips for a smoother interface:

  • If your company has a standard video background, make sure everyone has it and gets any help they need installing it.
  • Remind everyone about using mute when they’re not speaking.
  • Send instructions for how to switch to your avatar or photo if you need to step away from the screen to sneeze or take an emergency call.

4. Record and transcribe the interview.

This is the best way to preserve the full discussion for future reference. Most writers find it invaluable, and most interviewees don’t mind if the conversation is captured. However, always be sure to ask permission first.

Divide and Conquer the Agenda

1. Designate a Timekeeper.

During complicated discussions, it’s easy to run out of time before you get through your agenda. As the meeting facilitator, if your role is to delve into nuances, it can be difficult to get the detail you need while simultaneously keeping an eye on the clock. By designating that task to a specific person, your discussion is more likely to stay focused and on schedule.

2. Circle Back, Clarify, and Summarize.

After each segment of discussion, take a few moments to restate the main points the expert has articulated. It’s normal for interpretations to differ from person to person. By summarizing as you go, you can prevent misunderstandings.

This is particularly true when it comes to complex technical discussions. Don’t be afraid to ask an expert to explain something again or confirm your understanding is accurate. Remember, if you’re confused, so is someone else. Most experts have a variety of methods and anecdotes to make their points clear. For content strategists, if you can’t restate the bottom line, it’s unlikely you’re going to be able to write about it clearly.

Follow Up

1. Send Thanks and Share Resources.

After your meeting, take a moment to thank everyone for participating and share the recording. Email, text, or in-app messaging makes it super convenient. When possible, an old-fashioned handwritten note can be a nice touch to send an expert. For discussions that are part of a multi-phase project, let everyone know the date for the next one and when they can expect that pre-brief. Because you now have a template for it, updates can be quick and stress-free.

If your meeting has been recorded or transcribed or someone was assigned to take notes, be sure to let everyone know where to find that documentation. Another option is to create a group document and ask everyone to plug in their main takeaways. That way, the information is preserved while it’s still fresh. It’s also another opportunity to keep everyone on the same page for an ongoing project.

2. If Further Questions Come Up . . .

It’s not uncommon for everyone involved in the meeting to think of another question after it’s over. Often experts will even think of scenarios or tips they wish they’d mentioned. Let everyone know how to share questions or ideas. Encouraging your people to continue thinking it through keeps your content fresh and relevant.

Have We Missed Anything?

If you have more meeting questions (or your own suggestion to add) don’t hesitate to send us an email at [email protected]. We can help you keep the dialogue – and your productivity – flowing.

Eyes on the Prize: Tips for Interviewing Subject Matter Experts
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Tara Coughlin

As a writer for Version A, I create content for several of our clients in the technology space. My combined background in liability insurance, military operations, and disaster relief gives me real-world insight into the importance of effective communication, particularly when it comes to logistics and crisis management. When I’m not writing, I play the clarinet. Just kidding! I’m an insatiable traveler and my big picture goal is to see as much of the world as possible. The list is extensive, but my favorite place so far has been the Whitsundays off the east coast of Australia.
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