I’ve interviewed many “subject matter experts” — SMEs–from cabinet secretaries in state government, to engineers, to healthcare technology experts, and many others. I find it fascinating to explore new topics, learn the inside information, and see the relevance to the audience. But some people are uncomfortable interviewing others due to their knowledge or their job titles.
Always remember that whatever your SME’s job, you have a job to do, too, and you are as skilled in and dedicated to your work just as they are to theirs.
It’s not necessary to be an expert yourself when gathering information. However, there are a few things that can help make the interview process better for both of you.
Here are ten ways to make your interviews more effective:
- Do your homework. If possible, become familiar with whatever field your content will focus on, or your SMEs are working in. A simple Google search for “what is” or “how does X work?” will give you some familiarity with terminology, concepts and essentials, but you don’t need to become an expert yourself. Don’t worry if you have a lot of questions–that’s the point of the interview!
- Have a plan for the meeting: Think about what kinds of information you need for your assignment, because you will probably have limited time. Don’t create a rigid list of questions and answers you need. Just have general, flexible idea of some of the essential information. Learn to listen for new ideas, surprising information and unexpected connections. Your interview will hopefully provide many new ideas you can use.
- Take notice of your SME’s personality: Identify the personality of your SME, and adapt to it. While you need to be respected for your job and abilities, it doesn’t hurt to let SMEs know that you accept them as the “expert” in the topic. Allow them to be the teacher. If they are not forthcoming, ask them simple questions like how they became an expert in the topic, or how they came to their current position, or how long they’ve been working in the field. Be genuinely interested in them and their work. It builds a connection, and most people like talking about their work and knowledge.
- Start with the Big Picture. Often, it’s best to ask the SME to give you a big picture view of their topic. You may have gleaned some of this from your initial research, but ask the “open” questions to start, and give your expert time to warm up by allowing them to give your their “big picture” view. Listen for little clues about unexpected details, and follow up with questions on those. During this time, you can also use a technique to demonstrate you know something of the topic by the way you ask the question. For example: “So, I understand how this process is used for X, but I’m not quite clear on some of the other uses I’ve heard mentioned. Can you provide some insight on that?”
- Don’t make assumptions. Even on simple things, make a quick review: “As I understand it, you first do X, then y, then the material is heated which flushes out impurities–but how does that happen? Does it become liquid and is strained somehow or do they have a heavier weight and drop to bottom?” Doing this will prompt you to dig down for specifics that you might otherwise not think about until long after the interview.
- Ask what the impact is. Your audience will want to know why this information matters or how it will affect them, their work, their life. Some impacts are obvious but you may not be aware of all of them unless someone in the know points them out. As you process what you are being told, consider how it all connects and if something doesn’t make sense or is unclear, ask for clarification. The questions you ask are often the ones an audience will be asking–or thinking about.
- Ask for analogies or examples: Many SMEs will have some analogies they use to explain information to lay people. If they don’t, try to think of one or more yourself, and run it by the SME to see if they feel it accurately represents the idea they were trying to communicate.
- Document important information. Take notes to record essential information. Don’t be wondering later what a specific term or process was. Be sure to accurately record numbers. Verify by repeating the term, name, process or numbers. If your SME provides paper or online resources, have a plan to keeping good track of that information. You’ll need these details later, and it’s better not to have to ask for it again. Note: Recording your interview is an option, but be sure to confirm at the beginning if your SME is comfortable with that. Recognize, too, that people do not speak as freely when they are recorded.
- Be trustworthy: Your expert may share things when they are comfortable that they would not necessarily share with everyone. But they might be essential to your understanding and accuracy, even if you can’t state every detail. Be sensitive to anything that might be uncomfortable for your SME, and confirm with them if you want to use that information in your project.
- Ask for review of your draft: Even with a lot of research, you probably aren’t an “expert” on this topic now, so get some feedback on your draft–either in early stages or later versions. It’s easier for an expert to see how you have captured all the elements in a topic, and quickly correct any errors. They may also add new tidbits of information when they see where you are going with your project, and help provide better examples or analogies.
One last thing to think about when dealing with “experts”:
Be aware that not all experts agree: Sometimes experts are in disagreement about a topic. You need to be an advocate for your audience. It’s all right to ask if others have different views about a topic or project or process. Giving the audience a fair and accurate story from all legitimate angles is one big way to earn their trust.
Generally, interviewing SMEs is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job, so learn to look forward to it. And remember: while they may be an expert in their topic, you are an expert in yours, either writing and/or instructional design.
© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2012-2022