Four ways to mine gold from your subject matter experts

Interviewing authorities on particular topics can be tricky, whether they be terse or verbose. Try these tactics to tap the motherlode for your audience.

To write remarkable content, you need two things: a great writer and someone who knows the ins and outs of your industry.

The catch is, it’s not often that you find one person who can fill both roles. So, whom do you choose to produce your content—the writer who has a way with words but no technical experience, or the technical expert whose writing is bland or, worse, utterly unreadable?

Fortunately, you have another choice: using your technical experts as subject matter experts (SMEs) to inform and guide your writers. For this option, you or a writer would conduct an interview with an SME to get the details of the topic and then use that information to write a well-informed piece of content.

That often introduces another challenge: getting exactly the information you need from your SME (versus the information they want to give you). Though he or she probably has a wealth of information, it’s not always easy to get what you’re looking for.

To start, go into the interview prepared. Though your SME might be a primary source of information, a basic understanding of the topic will help you ask intelligent questions. Imagine going into an interview for a blog post on protecting your computer network from ransomware-when you don’t have a clue what ransomware is.

You’d probably spend a good chunk of time talking about the basics, without getting to the meat of the topic. If you’re already an expert on the topic, brush up on your interviewee’s background so you understand his or her specialties and position on the subject matter. If you’re new to the topic, make sure to come to the table with:

  • A knowledge of key terms related to the topic, industry trends, or latest news
  • An understanding of the topic at the appropriate level (sometimes a high level is appropriate; other times only specialist level will do)
  • Insight into why the audience cares about this topic
  • Several questions to jumpstart the conversation

Though that initial research will help, it doesn’t guarantee a smooth interview. Here are common challenges you or your writers might face and tips to help you through:

Challenge: Your SME is a talker

At first, that doesn’t seem like a problem: Your SME is eager to give you as much information as possible for your piece of content and monopolizes the interview, providing as much insight as possible. The downside emerges when you get back to your desk—two hours later—and realize that although you have a lot of stuff, it’s not actually what you need.

Tip: Ask the SME for an outline or a few bullets beforehand. Don’t go into an interview without something to guide your conversation; it’ll be far too easy to venture off course. To make sure your interview produces usable information, provide the specific topic to your SME and ask him or her to come to the table with a few bullet points that are crucial to the piece. (If you know the subject, present those points to the SME prior to the interview for review and comment.) That way, you can spend the interview fleshing out those individual points rather than going off on lengthy (and unrelated) tangents, and you’ll come away with exactly what you need.

Challenge: Your SME is not a talker

By contrast, you could get an SME who knows his or her stuff but prefers to convey information in curt responses. That means that when you return to your desk—about five minutes later—you don’t have enough information to write a haiku, let alone a blog post.

Tip: Embrace the uncomfortable silence. When an SME offers a minimal reply to a question, don’t immediately jump in and say, “OK, great!” and move on to the next question. Embrace the silence. Let it get a little awkward. More often than not, the SME will eventually fill the void with more information without your prompting. If that’s not fruitful—and you just end up with a prolonged, awkward silence—ask a follow-up question. Sometimes, all you need is, “Can you tell me more about that?” or, “Can you give me an example of that?” and you’ll get your subject talking again. If at the end of the interview you still feel like the page might be empty, ask to follow up via email.

Challenge: Your SME tends to get stuck in the weeds

Sure, you want your SME to know the ins and outs of the industry, so he or she can explain it to you. When your SME is entrenched in the subject matter, your conversation might seem too technical (read: You don’t understand a word he or she says).

Tip: Ask the SME to explain it like you’re 5 years old. Doing so will force the SME to approach the topic from a higher level, providing a much simpler picture of the core of the concept and helping guide your follow-up questions. You don’t have to (and shouldn’t) overlook all the technical details—given that you want to appeal to your audience members, who are familiar with the industry—but this will put you on a better path to understanding. With a better grasp on the topic, you’ll be much better equipped to explain it to your readers.

Challenge: Your SME wants to do the writing

Though this could be a good thing (he does, after all, know the subject matter inside and out), it could also backfire if the draft comes back as a disorganized, incomprehensible mess.

Tip: Give it a shot. If the SME volunteers to write the draft himself, there’s a good chance he’s at least somewhat interested in writing, which tends to yield better results than someone who has no interest in it whatsoever. So, it generally doesn’t hurt to let your SME develop a first draft. To minimize problems, preface the assignment by laying out expectations such as a word count, format suggestions (e.g., a blog post should have a few distinct sections with subheads, rather than one giant wall of text), and a disclaimer that you will edit the draft once it’s complete but will let the SME review it before it’s published. The first time you work with a particular SME (though you might make this standard practice), collaborate on an outline before he or she starts writing to ensure you’re on the same page.

SMEs aren’t always easy to work with, but when that relationship is successful, they can help you write better, more relevant content for your audience.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Right Source blog.

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