How to get WAY better at interviewing technical experts
Creating content that speaks to a technical audience is hard to do, but it’s important. One successful tactic is to turn subject matter expert (SME) interviews into blog posts, whitepapers, or case studies.
You’ll know a technical interview was successful when you get SME feedback like this:
“Heather! First, your positive attitude is fantastic and appreciated. I am often the grumpy nerd in the background trying to explain what’s happening and your approach is much more effective. Thank you and I will try to return in kind.”
At ActionCopywriting we do a lot of content interviews and get fantastic results. Anyone in content marketing should be talking to their technical experts.
This post is about how to hold better interviews with subject matter experts. It includes common mistakes and a step-by-step look at our process.
While other writers tend to avoid talking with people, we know “face-to-face” gets the best information. That’s why we prefer interviewing instead of relying only on research and notes.
This 1-2-3 combo platter (SME knowledge, a content interview, and really good writing) makes for unbeatable technical content.
But running a great interview for a technical topic isn’t easy to pull off.
4 Mistakes that content creators make when interviewing an industry expert
Have we made these mistakes? Yeah, of course we have. But the important thing is we LEARNED from them.
Mistake #1: Trying to discuss a topic without researching it first
It’s absolutely essential to research technical topics before interviewing an SME. Why? Because that’s how you earn an expert’s time and trust.
First, if you don’t have a basic grasp of the topic, the SME won’t feel understood. Your questions will fall flat. Or, there’ll be a lack of depth in the responses you get, leading to a weak or uninteresting article.
Second, if you’re not up to speed, you can’t evaluate the expert’s responses on the fly and ask relevant follow-up questions. Unfamiliarity with an industry topic can easily lead to misinformation in an article.
Third, you pretty much lose all credibility when you don’t know what you’re talking about.
Mistake #2: Sticking too close to a list of questions during the SME interview
Having an outline with questions before an interview helps keep the discussion on track. But every conversation is unique, and if an interviewee has valuable perspectives you hadn’t anticipated—follow their conversation wherever it may lead.
Of course, you should also respect the content marketing team’s vision. Don’t entirely ditch the outline in favor of tangents that have nothing to do with the intended topic (no matter how interesting the angle may seem).
Mistake #3: Conducting interviews that are all work and no fun
Industrial technologies are serious and important, but they’re also exciting. If you are genuinely interested in an SME’s area of expertise, it’ll show. Displaying enthusiasm encourages conversation (which is the whole idea).
Be at ease on the call, and don’t forget to have a little fun—it’s an interview not an interrogation.
Mistake #4: Gathering “101-level” info for customers that expect “301-level”
If your readers are industry experts themselves, there are concepts they already understand. For example, a 43-year-old chemical engineer with 20 year’s experience doesn’t want to read about the most basic of basics, like:
“Thermodynamics is an important science that deals with heat, work, and temperature.”
Yeah, no kidding (cue eye-roll). Starting a technical blog post with an intro WAY below your reader’s level of expertise encourages an actual expert reader to move on in a hurry.
Original Content Comes From Deep Experience: 11 steps for more useful (ie less awkward) SME interviews & content creation
Google rewards original content. Duh. The search engine even has an acronym for this concept, “E-E-A-T” which stands for Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness. Your SMEs are a wellspring of EEAT content that Google loves (readers too).
This is the process we use to conduct interviews, to get unique, authoritative insights from an SME.
Step 1: Clarify what the content marketing team wants
To start, we find out the content marketing team’s intent.
- Is it an SEO play?
- Who is the target audience?
- Where will the call-to-action lead?
- How does the content fit into the marketing and sales strategy?
Step 2: Research & write a tentative outline
Drafting a preliminary outline of a post before we interview lets the content marketing team know we’re on the same page. Our research for the outline often reveals gaps in our technical knowledge.
We use these gaps to our advantage, making them into questions for an expert during our interview; SMEs who love explaining what they do gush information and insight.
Step 3: Keep the interview team small
The fewer people on a call, the better, as it minimizes distraction. Nobody loves panel interviews (we checked).
A one-on-one approach encourages SMEs to be more relaxed and candid with their responses.
Step 4: Get the DETAILS that make GREAT CONTENT
We do our research to show an expert we’re (at least somewhat) informed about a topic. But we also…
- Ask questions, even if we know the answer. The SME will have years of experience and study. Hence, they’ll have unique, in-depth perspectives. Their insights build on our understanding and can show us a completely different way to look at a topic.
- Follow tangents if something relevant comes up. We let the conversation flow naturally. But always keep the article’s intent in mind (see Step 1).
- Ask for examples. The SME’s real-world experience helps us create an article the target audience can relate to. We get specific by asking about a time something happened and what it was like.
- Capture their verbal gold. Interviews produce “one-of-a-kind” quotes that Google has never seen, and Google likes that. So do readers. Using the exact words in an article that an SME used to explain something is the definition of authentic.
Heather made the interviews easy! She did her homework and came very well prepared with a lot of background knowledge and pointed questions that got to the heart of the message we were trying to get across.
~Todd Chavanne, Business Development, Sullivan Steel
Step 5: Record + transcribe the call
We record every interview unless there’s a reason not to (confidentiality, for example). We find it’s too much for us to talk, listen, think, question, AND take notes simultaneously. Also, the sound of a keyboard tapping during a call is really annoying.
Getting a transcript also helps with:
- Representing the SME’s opinion accurately
- Capturing nuances and inflections in the expert’s speech
- Gathering so so many excellent quotes
- Sorting individual details and ideas for the content
Step 6: Note any future topics that surface
Having ideas slip away is easy, but we know better than to let that happen. We take note of interesting thoughts that come up during an interview (which is easier to do with a transcript).
An interview tangent could be the perfect topic for some future goals.
Step 7: Write a piece of content SO GOOD IT KNOCKS OFF SOCKS
High-quality industrial and manufacturing writing resonates with the intended reader, typically an engineer, scientist, or professional.
But speaking to this audience without a technical background is risky. Sometimes it’s best to have a technically-inclined writer because:
- Industry jargon and colloquialisms must be spot-on
- Technical language is tricky—small changes can completely alter the meaning
- Even minor errors can have serious consequences; a critical eye is vital
Step 8: Incorporate branding, SEO, CTAs, and other marketing needs
Our content gets results because we’re writers who understand inbound marketing. A skilled writer will smoothly fit the optimizing elements into their content as they write rather than forcing them in awkwardly.
Step 9: Final edits
In this step, our first draft is nearly publish-ready. Huzzah! We like to run the piece by the subject matter expert. They’ll identify misunderstandings, correct errors, and may even enrich the content, making it more valuable to readers.
We resolve comments from the SME and/or content marketing team during this editing step.
Step 10: Send to publish (and prep for the next exciting topic)
Once our content is live, high-fives all around! Keep that momentum going by sending us the next project. Here are a few ideas:
- Dive deep into a trending topic
- Write to potential objections
- Leverage proprietary knowledge
- Share expert POVs and insights
Step 11: See two of our favorite SME-based samples (written by us)
Save yourself time (and hassle); partner with us
Your content marketing team does WAY more than content. They’re SEO experts, editors, writers, social media managers…the list goes on. Please, don’t overload them.
We’re the go-to people for great technical content—we’re honestly passionate about the manufacturing and industrial topics we work on.
It’d be a pleasure if you’d reach out to us.