By Manya Chylinski published February 11, 2011

How to Get the Best Content From Subject Matter Experts

There are times when you need information from experts for your content. Subject matter experts are critical when creating compelling content. These are the people writers and marketers rely on to provide the background information or technical details that give your content authenticity and credibility and help build a foundation for relevant and engaging content.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you approach subject matter experts, whether they are inside or outside your organization.

Identifying experts

Find someone who knows the topic and can speak to it from a point of view appropriate for your audience. Make sure you understand what the expert brings to the table. Is this the engineer who designed the software and knows it inside out? Has he or she been in the industry for decades? Is this the company president who brings a business perspective to the issue?

If you need outside experts either to add credibility or because you simply do not have the expertise in-house, start looking in industry organizations, your networks and friends, or groups on social sites like LinkedIn. If you need other options, consider services designed to link experts with the people who need their expertise like ProfNet or Reporter Connection. A literature search in industry journals and a review of contributors to trade magazines can also reveal those who speak and write on the topic.

Setting expectations

This is key when asking for someone’s time, especially when you work with outside experts, as they do not have as much natural buy-in as in-house experts may have. You also need to ensure that anyone you interview understands the process and why you want to speak with him or her. Here are a few things to consider:

  • The purpose of the interview
  • How the information will fit in the final piece
  • What types of questions you will ask
  • How long the interview will take.
  • What kind of review or editing options he or she is allowed on the final piece
  • Who will conduct the interview—a staff person or an outside writer or consultant.

Failure to set expectations can result in pushback and a lot of wasted time. It is essential to set expectations when interviewing customers because they often have a very different idea about sharing information with you.  For example, customers usually expect to give short testimonials, and can get defensive if they think you are being invasive or taking too much time.

Preparing for the interview

Know why you are approaching this particular person.

  • Why was this person recommended or chosen?
  • What is this individual’s specific area of expertise?
  • How can you frame the conversation to ensure you keep your questions relevant and your interviewee engaged?

Do some basic research on this person and the topic, if necessary. You need to know enough about both to ask intelligent questions. But do not try to dazzle anyone with how much you know. Remember, the expert knows more than you do. It is okay to admit you do not know a lot about the topic. In fact, if the purpose of the final piece is to educate, you may very well want to start with the basics.

Conducting the interview

Remember that an interview is primarily a conversation. The more comfortable both of you are, the better information you will get.

Be respectful
Yet be ready to interrupt if the interviewee gets off topic. It is your job to make sure you stay on topic and use the time you have together to your best advantage.

Record the interview, if possible
And always (always!) take notes in case something goes wrong with the recording. If you conduct the interview in person, consider taking notes longhand. Opening up a laptop or focusing on a screen can put a physical or psychological barrier between you and the interviewee and threaten the success of the interview.

Follow the conversation
Be ready to follow an interesting or relevant line of thought, even if it is not on your list of questions. However, make sure you address the critical questions on your list.

Prepare an open-ended wrap-up question
This gives the interviewee a chance to add some final thoughts. This is often when you get the best information, the best quotes, or the best background material. The individual has relaxed a bit, discusses important information not previously addressed, or gives you what to them seems obvious or throwaway, but really gets to the significant point. No matter how much great information you get in the interview, do not forget this wrap-up question.

These strategies will help you get relevant information from subject matter experts.

Do you have any other strategies or techniques to find or utilize subject matter experts who have helped you create compelling content?

Author: Manya Chylinski

Manya Chylinski is a marketing consultant and writer helping B2B companies create compelling content and share thought leadership and success stories. Founder of Alley424 Communications, Manya has experience in a variety of industries including technology, higher education, financial services, government, and consulting.

Other posts by Manya Chylinski

  • Russ Henneberry

    Wow. This is very timely for me as I have been conducting this type of interview over the past couple of months. This is a great outline of the process. Thank you!

  • Russ Henneberry

    Wow. This is very timely for me as I have been conducting this type of interview over the past couple of months. This is a great outline of the process. Thank you!

  • Patricia Redsicker

    Talk about timing! I’m getting ready to interview an expert next week for my newly launched podcast series. I really like your tip about getting comfortable in order to get better information (this will be a first for me so I’ve been rather nervous about it). Thank so much – this is excellent advice.

  • Anonymous

    Great tips! We’ve done a few interviews for a client that have been traded through email, and while this is efficient, the interviews are often so stiff! Any suggestions for a good phone recording app for the Droid would be welcome…the phone interviews I’ve done have been great, but hastily scribbled.

  • Anonymous

    Manya, This is all excellent advice. Thanks for sharing! You’ve made it easier for anyone smart enough to read this article to see you are quite and expert yourself. Thanks again. – Billy

  • Kimmo Linkama

    Good advice, Manya. I would emphasize the importance of doing your “due diligence” in advance, researching both the subject matter and the person you will be interviewing. It won’t hurt to read a bit more widely about the organization your expert comes from, either. This gives you an idea of how the expert will approach the issue and allows you to understand better why he or she says what.

    As a copywriter, my interviews most often have to do with client work and the client usually points out the relevant experts. It helps a lot if the client introduces me to the expert in advance – a letter of recommendation, if you will.

    I like to start off with an email interview, sending the entire questionnaire to the expert to begin with. Sometimes the experts are more comfortable giving their answers in writing, and in any case the interview will be easier to do when your interviewee knows the angle you’re taking and has time to collect background material if needed.

    A follow-up phone call will then allow you to complement the written answers and produce all the juicy bits: good quotes and all the informal surrounding the subject matter.

    When doing the interview, it is a good idea to pretend you’re less knowledgeable in the subject matter than you are in reality. People usually love to be helpful, and it doesn’t hurt to get your answers in plain language instead of industry jargon.

    An EXTREMELY important point is to make sure that the interviewee will have a chance to look at your final piece before it’s published. I have found it creates a lot of trust and a more relaxed interviewing atmosphere if I assure the interviewee that he or she will see the final story even before I submit it to my client.