Coaching Subject Matter Experts before the Interview

Coaching subject matter experts and the writer

You can lead subject matter experts to an interview, but you can’t expect them to do everything.

On the care and feeding of subject matter experts (SMEs)

First, congratulate yourself on persuading your SMEs to take the interview.

Because they are experts, it is usually hard to nail them down and commit to a call or meeting. Tell them that, based on their expertise, you can generate valuable content that will promote their favorite product. (And help raise their own profile, incidentally.)

When you hire a writer to interview your subject matter experts — or your customers — do some work on both sides of the transaction.

Here are some guidelines:

  1. Explain the SME’s specialty and personal characteristics to the writer. Make sure she knows what you want out of the interview and the kinds of information you want her to elicit. If you know that you want information from an engineer on how your company’s technology was developed, coach the writer accordingly. Don’t let her squander precious interview time on discussions of product marketing and trade shows. Briefing the writer in advance saves you time and money in the long run.
  2. Besides explaining that to the writer, explain it to your SMEs. Tell them what you’re trying to accomplish in the interview and in the written piece. Most SMEs never get this picture; they figure they’re on the call to talk animatedly about what turns them on. The writer can try to convey the goal to the SME during the interview, but it should really come from you — preferably beforehand. As a marketing manager, you are in a better position than your writer to describe your goals to a co-worker or customer.
  3. Take part in the meeting or call yourself. It’s a good idea to be part of the conversation, especially with a new writer or a new project. If your writer has interviewed plenty of your SMEs already, and you’re confident about her work product, then this becomes a soft requirement. But if you’re asking, say, your press release writer to interview your chief data scientist, you should plan to attend. Why? If your writer ties up a subject matter experts for 45 minutes and ends up with unusable material, you own the failure. Be on the call to keep the conversation going the way you want it to go and help the writer through unfamiliar territory.
  4. Record the call. It shows how much you value your SMEs’ expertise. It also makes them feel more important.

All of that makes perfect sense, of course. But so does flossing your teeth, and a lot of people don’t follow that guideline, either.

Coaching both your writer and your subject matter expert is cheap insurance for your content marketing effort.

photo credit: Ed Uthman


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.”