3 Ways to Make Your Subject Matter Experts Think

This post was written by John White on Fri, 14 Aug 2009 11:32:12 +0000
Posted Under: ideal reader,interviewing customers,keywords,process of writing,social media,subject matter experts

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Je pense, donc j'essuie.

In a customer interview, your marketing communications writer can get more out of interviewees or subject matter experts if she can make them think.

Years ago, my boss at the time, a VP of marketing, gave me the secret to working with our infuriating, inscrutable, mercurial CEO:

You’ve got to make him think.

Frankly, I wasn’t adept at it then – hence, my being laid off some months later – and I’m still not good at it, but I’m working with a marketing communications writer who knows how to make our subject matter experts and even our customers think.

I heartily enjoy seeing them rise to the challenge.

Making the Customer Think in a Customer Interview?

This seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why would you run the risk of antagonizing a customer or engineer who is doing you a favor by allowing you to pick his brain for a white paper or case study?

This writer is smart enough not to try to impress the interviewee with her knowledge of the business or technology. She doesn’t need to know more in those fields to make the interviewee think.

It’s all in the three questions she poses them to explain it.

  1. “How cool is this technology, would you say?” She doesn’t ask about the novelty or even the cost-effectiveness of the technology. She’s looking for The Cool. In fact, she’s not even looking for it, but asking the interviewee to lead her right to it. Is the cool thing about predictive text entry on a cell phone that it only takes up a few KB of phone memory, or that it helps you text faster, or that it can guess which letters you want to enter next? And how cool is it?
  2. “What can you tell me about this story that would get readers to want to share it with other people?” This is a big part of writing for social media, which she understands quite well. It’s thinking one step past the ideal readers, to their desire to share the story with their social network.
  3. “If you were looking for a story like this on the Web, which search terms would you use?” Not everybody can get away with asking this question – I cannot – but she can. It’s the ultimate search engine optimization question, of course, and while interviewees can’t vouch for every possible keyword, their insight is valuable.

Questions like these might lead you to think that her drafts consist of keyword-stuffed, awkward copy. If she didn’t process the answers to these questions as well as she does, they would be awful copy. But, as a marketing communications writer, she knows what I want out of the piece, and she understands our audience very well, so she knows what to do with the answers.

By making the interviewees and subject matter experts think, she’s done more than tell our story: She’s told it without making our readers have to think.

(Tip of the hat to Steve Krug of Don’t Make Me Think fame).

photo credit: Dionetian

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