How to Interview Subject Matter Experts

Today’s content marketing and public relations professionals are tasked with the important job of filling their industries’ education gaps, and one of the best ways to do this is to showcase insights from your brand’s thought leaders and external subject matter experts.

Conducting interviews with subject matter experts is personally one of my favorite aspects of my job — not only do I collect useful tips for myself and my readers, but the experts are always grateful for the opportunity to discuss what they are passionate about while gaining additional exposure.

However, jumping into a thought-provoking conversation with someone you’ve just met via email or phone takes some getting used to, and experts usually don’t have much time for ice breakers.

Preparing for an interview can make all the difference in how efficiently that time is used. Through trial and error, here are a few simple tricks I’ve picked up along the way that can make the interview run smoothly for both you and your expert. If I miss any of your favorite tips, let me know in the comments!

Research who the person is before you meet. Reading some of the work your expert has written and learning about their career milestones can clue you into their niche expertise. Services like ProfNet, where you can send a query or research a particular expert’s profile, can also help you identify the right person to interview.

Write down your questions. Think of what sound bites will inspire your audience while demonstrating the speaker’s authority in their field. If your questions are too specific, sometimes the answer is very brief and non-distinctive, so lean on the broader side to give the speaker room to think out loud. Some of my go-to questions tackle topics such as:

  • Emerging trends
  • Mistakes the expert has learned from
  • Pros and cons
  • Case study examples
  • Opinions on hot button industry issues

Sending these questions to your speaker prior to the interview helps them get comfortable with the material and provide thoughtful responses.

Make sure the order of your questions flows conversationally. Asking your questions in an order where one answer can flow into the other helps move the conversation along without being scripted. If it makes you feel more comfortable, jot down a couple segues to lead to the next question. I’ve found that a conversation can form naturally if there isn’t room for awkward pauses between questions.

When possible, conduct the interview over the phone or in-person. Soliciting written responses to your questions via email definitely expedites the approval process because there is no chance of misquoting, and it also takes away the extra step of recording the interview. However, getting a well-written, thorough response to more than two questions can be a longshot, so your best bet for great sound bites is to have a conversation.

Record the interview both electronically and by hand. Before we dive into how to record an interview, it’s important to note that there are laws in every state about recording phone calls, so be sure to read the fine print on those. Before conducting the interview, disclose to the speaker that the interview will be recorded. I usually disclose this via email so that there is a written record of consent.

Now on to recording – if you work for a company that gives you access to web conferencing or virtual meeting tools, recording interviews over the phone is a breeze. But if you do not have access to these, there are many digital applications such as Google Voice or your mobile phone’s voice memo app.

In my experience, asking a speaker to dial-in to a phone number so that the conversation can be recorded is usually never an issue, since it is in their best interest to have their quotes stated as accurately as possible. But what has also occurred in my experience is that technology is not always reliable.

Go back to the days of taking notes by hand or by typing in class and prioritize writing down quotes verbatim.

Summarizing what was discussed is helpful, but these don’t give you the sound bites you need to show that this was an exclusive interview, nor does it reflect the authentic voice of your expert.

One practice that helps me is to mouth each word as the speaker says it so I don’t forget it as I’m writing it down. Sometimes the most old-school methods are the most reliable.

Use all of your time. If the expert gives an answer that inspires a question off course from the ones you’ve planned, don’t be afraid explore it. Sending questions prior to the interview certainly helps the speaker prepare, but the reason they are considered an expert is because they live and breathe this information on a daily basis, so they will be able to answer a few curveballs.

Sometimes the best quotes happen from spur-of-the-moment questions because it shows the speaker you’re listening and thinking critically about what they are saying, which is what thought leaders strive to do for their industry.

Follow-up with a thank you email. After you complete your interview, email a quick thank-you to the expert. This gives you an opportunity to clarify any additional questions you have and check whether they need to see a copy of their quotes prior to publication. A polite thank you also goes a long way in fostering future collaborations.

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