3 Ways to Make Your Subject Matter Expert Think

Go ahead - make your readers think by making your subject matter expert think.

Your content marketing writer can get more out of a technical briefing if she can make the subject matter expert 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, that has never been my strong suit. But I’m working with a content marketing writer who knows how to make our subject matter experts and even our customers think.

I enjoy seeing her do it, and I enjoy watching them rise to the challenge.

Making the subject matter expert think? In an interview?

That seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Why would you risk antagonizing an engineer who has valuable information you need to turn into a white paper or case study?

“It’s not antagonizing,” she says. “This is about the sizzle beyond the steak. There’s always some art behind the science. It’s just a matter of prompting the engineer to talk about it.”

“You have to understand the technology yourself, though, right?” I ask.

“Understand? No. But I do have to be interested in it. That’s where the questions come in.”

Three questions that make your subject matter experts think

  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. For example, “What’s the coolest thing about running a machine learning model on a mobile device? That you don’t need the network to perform image recognition? That it can turn the device into a prediction machine? That you can make somebody’s life better that way? 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 the writer understands quite well. It’s thinking about the ideal readers, who want the credibility boost and influence that comes from sharing a good story with their followers. In fact, it’s thinking one step past those ideal readers.
  3. “If you were looking for a story like this on the Web, which search terms would you use?” This is a tough question – and a tough answer – but it’s extremely important. It’s the ultimate search engine optimization question. While the answer is rarely the exact one she’s looking for, subject matter experts almost always point her in a useful direction to find the right answer.

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 indeed be awful copy. But, as a content marketing writer, she knows what I want out of the piece. She also understands our audience, 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


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”

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