My first writing/editing job was for a university magazine. I regularly interviewed academics, fundraising experts, administrators and student services professionals. I was a good writer, but a horrible interviewer. Talking to university folks was a necessary but dreaded task.

And my attitude about interviewing came through to my subjects. They often answered my questions in a stilted, uncomfortable way. One of my interviewees actually called my boss and gently suggested that my conversational skills could use some help. Ouch.

From Awkward Questioner to Natural Conversationalist

Fast-forward a couple of decades. I now love to interview people. My subjects often thank me for a great conversation. And as a result of my interviews, I usually end up with juicy, relatable information.

It took effort to turn one of my worst skills into one of my best. And most of what I’ve learned has been through trial and error. But I also learned by listening to wonderful interviewers like NPR’s Terry Gross (“Fresh Air”) and Krista Tippett (“On Being”).

The good news is that even if you’re shy, you can become a better interviewer. And the great quotes you get from your subjects can add life and value to your content. Here are a few things to try, particularly when interviewing experts:

Prime the Interviewing Pump

Make your subject comfortable. Your source – even if they’re an expert in their field – may be antsy about being in the interview hot seat.

They might be worried that you won’t fully understand them or that your content won’t accurately reflect their research or story. Fortunately, there are many ways to bring out the best in the person you’re interviewing.

1. Become Google Maps

This tip sounds so basic that it’s easy to overlook: Check your subject’s geographic location ahead of time if you can.

Do you have any connection to their city or state? Did your family take a great vacation in their area? Does your brother-in-law live there? Did you hear that their town is famous for their deep-fried pickles?

Even the tiniest connection, mentioned appreciatively (and briefly) at the start of your conversation can break the ice. People love to talk about their hometowns. And it loosens them up so they’ll offer better answers. You’ll be amazed.

2. Check the weather

Can’t find a geographic connection? Then check the current weather in your subject’s location. “Hey, it sounds like you are in for some snow today! Are you ready for it?” Or “Gosh, I was so sorry to hear about the flooding in your area. I hope you weren’t affected.”

If your interviewee’s town has recently been in the news for any major event – good or bad – it’s nice to acknowledge it. That bit of human connection can shake subjects out of being too stiff and formal – which is the death of good quotes.

3. Think “conversation” not “interview”

Don’t: Sound like a robot, asking a question, quietly taking notes, then moving on to the next question.

Do: Frame what you’re doing as a conversation. Talk a little, even to say: “That’s an excellent point. I hadn’t considered that.” Your interviewee will feel less on the spot and will be more likely to share better information.

4. Play “repeat after me”

Occasionally, I use the positive listening tactic of repeating back what I just heard. I’ll say: “So you’re saying that the new approach your department developed is helping customers because it offers XYZ results faster than before?”

Repeating back complex information accomplishes 3 things:

  1. Clarifies: It helps you re-check an important point that you didn’t fully understand.
  2. Reassures: Your subject will appreciate you taking extra time to get their information right.
  3. Makes you sound smart! Often, I repeat back to an expert almost exactly what they told me in slightly different words. They invariably say, “That’s right! You’re obviously a great writer.” The goal isn’t (just) to earn an ego boost. Experts who trust you with their information tend to talk in a way that exudes excitement. That’s when you get amazing quotes for your content! A bonus: When you earn an expert’s trust, they tend to be much easier to work with on fact-checking.

5. “What would you tell your neighbor?”

Try this question when the expert can’t seem to give you concrete information that would make sense to “regular people,” or when they’re having trouble explaining how their program is better than their competitor’s.

Ask the expert: “If you were talking to a neighbor you like, how would you explain why they should choose your organization? (Other than knowing you work there!) What are some standout qualities you would share with them?”

This question encourages them to share what they think is most important about their organization – even if it’s something other organizations do, too. And imagining talking to an actual person seems to prompt answers that they might not give otherwise.

Connection is the Key

The bottom line: Great interviewing isn’t only about doing research or having detailed questions. It’s about making a human connection with another person, no matter who they are or what they do.

If you can help your subject relax, trust you to tell their story and think like a consumer, they’re going to give you meaningful quotes and insightful information.

Better yet, you might even enjoy the conversation. At that point, interviewing becomes one of the most rewarding parts of your work, rather than just the necessary step to get the information you need.

Ahava’s Thoughts on Creating Content with Subject Matter Experts

After graduate school, I worked for the Federal government, writing and editing digital content. I’ll never forget the first time I had to interview a pipeline engineer about what American citizens needed to know if a pipeline was going to be built on their property.

I was so nervous to ask any stupid questions, I forgot to ask the questions I’d prepared!

Luckily, the engineer was a nice guy and very understanding. But I learned an important lesson: when working with subject matter experts, it’s not the writer’s job to know everything. It’s the writer’s job to know what to ask.
Subject matter experts (SMEs) hold the keys to the valuable content kingdom. They possess the building blocks of information you need to create juicy content that provides your customers with textured, relevant information.

It can be demanding to work with SMEs. So often, they think they know more about the web then you do. And they also may demand that you write in a certain style. How can you make it easier to work with SMEs and create content that converts your users into customers?

5 Tips for Writing Content with SMEs

  1. Explain that content is a conversation: Subject matter experts are typically not writers and marketers. They don’t understand that content is a conversation between the brand/organization and your target audiences. When you frame content as a conversation, SMEs will help you craft and edit knockout content for customers. Watch this video to learn more about content as a conversation.
  2. Be prepared: When working with SMEs, you will have more success if you are prepared for the interview. Familiarize yourself with their subject matter, as well as their professional profiles. Use Google or LinkedIn to prepare. You will have a smoother conversation—and the SME will appreciate that you took the time to prepare.
  3. Explain your goals at the outset: If you’re creating content with subject matter experts, chances are you have strategic goals you need to reach. Articulate those goals to the SME and share how creating this content will help you reach them.
  4. Send an outline before you write: Everyone likes to be included in the process. Take the time to draft an outline before you begin writing, to organize your thoughts. More importantly, it prepares the SME for the first draft of content.
  5. Set limits on the editing process: When you send the draft copy for review, make it clear that you are only asking for a “factual” review. If you are writing digital content, there are certain technical limitations on edits because of SEO and web writing best practices. On every copy deck Aha Media sends, we explain the editing process with big red letters across the top, “PLEASE READ THIS PAGE BEFORE EDITING.” It helps to keep the editing process smoother.

Make friends with the subject matter expert

Working well with SMEs takes practice and confidence in the subject matter. Establish a rapport and connection before you jump into the interview. You will create an environment of sharing and exchange, which will result in a fabulous conversation that you can turn into content that converts.

Need help writing content with your subject matter experts? It’s our expertise at Aha Media. Email Ahava today.

 

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