How To Interview a Subject Matter Expert: The Definitive 2023 Guide
How To Interview a Subject Matter Expert: The Definitive 2023 Guide
March 7, 2023
Tango Content Marketing Lead
Hannah is a semi-recovered perfectionist and longtime subscriber to the squiggly model of success. She spent 11 years learning from the best at brands like HubSpot and Food52 and loves running, cooking, and helping people feel A++ at work. 🤗
A subject matter expert (SME for short) is a person with an exceptionally high expertise in a particular field or topic.
SMEs often have advanced degrees and credentials, but can also have accumulated their wealth of knowledge on the job, through years of experience.
If a key part of your job involves documenting key processes to help your team, company, and customers succeed, we see you. 🏆 Whether you’re the subject matter expert yourself or you’re more like the wrangler of SMEs, you’re doing a great service for everyone around you.
If “SME wrangler” sounds about right, you’ve come to the right place. This post is packed with actionable tips and tricks from people who have made a living out of winning over SMEs.
In this post, we’ll explain why it pays to ask for an expert opinion, introduce you to seven types of SMEs you might come across, and teach you how to interview someone with knowledge acquisition as your end goal. Interested in advice you won’t find elsewhere? We’ve got that, too.
Subject matter expert responsibilities
The most valuable subject matter experts:
Provide solutions to complex problems—by using their skills and experience to share unique insights
Act as a resource for others—by providing team guidance and support
Champion knowledge sharing—by contributing to policies, procedures, and best practices
Stay on the cutting edge—by tracking the latest developments/advancements in their field
Executing on key projects and mission-critical work
Participating in research projects and initiatives
Explaining technical ideas to a non-technical audience
Identifying places where technical solutions will improve business performance
Consulting on an hourly or service fee basis
Serving as expert witnesses in lawsuits or other legal actions
7 types of subject matter experts
If you own a training program, knowledge base, or system, you know all the upsides of tapping into a specialist vs a generalist. If you write technical documentation and you’ve found a way to do it without having a go-to person for expert insights, you have our attention/admiration. (Please join our community and tell us how to crack the code!)
We’ve collaborated with dozens of SMEs over the years, and 99% of them have been wonderful to work with. The other 1%? Story for another day. 😅
At the end of the day, one thing holds true. Subject matter experts are people, just like us. They have their good days and bad days. Strengths and weaknesses. Preferences and pet peeves. Commonalities and idiosyncrasies. Getting to know them quickly—and understanding how they approach personal knowledge management—will only help you get the insights you need.
How to conduct a subject matter interview
Before we dig in, a disclaimer.
Impostor syndrome is a common experience, not a personal failing. If you know you need to interview a subject matter expert and you’re mildly to majorly intimidated, you’re not alone.
Would it help to take the pressure off? You don’t need to ace it. It doesn’t need to go perfectly. And there are a few steps you can take—before, during, and after—to set yourself up for success.
Step 1—Do your homework.
Want to make a good first impression? Save your SME the task of bringing you up to speed from scratch.
Look your SME up on LinkedIn. Make a mental note of the basics (where they’re based, how long they’ve been in their current role, what their focus areas are, etc.). Check out their recent activity. Have they published an article or engaged with a post that’s relevant to your topic? Skim any recommendations they’ve received, to get a better understanding of their particular talents. Glance at any recommendations they’ve given, to uncover what they value in people they’ve worked with in the past.
Research your end users. Who’s going to use the documentation you and your SME create? What are their goals and pain points? What will be the best way to transfer knowledge?
Go through existing documentation. There may not be much, but see what you can find in your company knowledge base, on your website, in your onboarding materials, in Jira, etc. If you hit pay dirt, round it up for your SME to review. Don’t assume they’re familiar with what’s already out there. Do assume it can be updated and improved!
Step 2—Create a first draft, if you can.
Working from something > working from nothing.
Think through your strategy. What specific job, skills, or knowledge do you want to transfer to your end users? What’s the best format and structure? What are some nice-to-haves and need-to-haves? Where will your documentation or curriculum live, ultimately? How urgent is the project? Answering these questions will help you communicate what you need (upfront).
Put pen to paper. You may not know all of the specifics, but it’s a lot easier for someone to cruise through a draft and fill in the blanks than it is to meet a blank stare. If you’re a content marketer interviewing an engineering leader, cut yourself some slack! You’ll get the context you need in the interview phase.
Step 3—Make a list of (open-ended) questions.
Now’s not the time to wing it.
Use your research to create thoughtful questions. If your attempt at a first draft suggests you need in-depth answers and insights ASAP, don’t worry. Write down all the questions you’d ask your SME if you had all the time in the world.
Delete any questions you could (and should!) ask Google. There are no dumb questions. Just some that are less likely to make your SME light up.
Categorize your questions by topic/theme. To help keep your conversation from jumping all over the place, rearrange your questions into distinct sections (ideally no more than 4-5).
Prioritize your questions according to order of importance. You might only get one shot with your SME. Make it count by figuring out what’s a P1 (top priority; couldn’t create this kind of documentation without it), P2 (could be a fast follow), and P3 (not necessary but would be helpful).
Jot down a follow-up question to go deeper on each P1. Some suggestions: Take me through the steps you take to do [example]. How do you know where to start? How do you know when you’re done? What’s the one action you’d recommend somebody new to [topic] takes? What’s something that non-experts believe about [topic] that they’re wrong about? What did you wish you knew about [topic] before you started?
Step 4—Reach out to your SME.
With a Plan B!
Choose your channel of choice. The best option varies from company to company (and person to person). Have the type of company culture where 90% of communication takes place in Slack? Head that way. Know you need to skip straight to a calendar invitation in order to have a hope and a prayer of getting face time? Request the meeting. Think email will be your best bet? Send a note.
Provide (just enough) context. This could take the form of an agenda, ideally with a few quick bullet points. The important thing is that your SME knows why and when you want to meet, what you need from them, what your timeline looks like, and what your own action items will be. Some SMEs may want to see all of your research and questions ahead of time; some may be overwhelmed by so much information. If you feel good about your first draft, it’s not a bad idea to link out to it.
Propose a few (low-lift) ways to collaborate. People have all kinds of preferences about how (and when) they like to work. Since your SME is doing you a favor, be as flexible and accommodating as you can. See if they’d like to meet in person, have a Zoom call, go back and forth in Google Docs, record a Loom, etc. If they want to automatically create a how-to guide for you (in seconds, with screenshots, on their own time!), we may be able to help. 😁
Explain what’s in it for them. People who approach sharing knowledge as an entirely altruistic act are the best people, if you ask us. Just in case you’re working with people who are awesome *and* very busy, try framing your favor as more of a pitch.
Give your SME an out. This may be an unpopular opinion. But subject matter experts are in high demand by definition. If your project isn’t pressing, propose a few dates to connect. If you *are* under deadline and your SME’s sense of urgency doesn’t match yours, see if they can refer you to someone else to interview. Multiple recommendations may be even better, for a more well-rounded perspective.
Step 5—Meet with your SME.
It’s showtime. 🙂
Take a deep breath. You’ve done your research, you have great questions, and you got the meeting (assuming you’re meeting live). This is a solid 70% of the process. Make a minute or two of small talk, thank them for their time, and get the ball rolling.
Recap your goals and how you’ll run the meeting. Again, context is king. What’s your end goal? What are your top priorities? Which major themes will you be covering? How much time will you allocate to each? What are you hoping to walk away with?
Press record. Recording the conversation will save you from scrambling to take detailed notes as you’re trying to listen and lead the interview. Otter.ai is a great option for this, if you’re meeting over video!
Open the conversation. Remember, no one is grilling anyone! An interview is just one of many conversation types. Start with your first question, and listen carefully to your SME’s response.
Remember the art of asking good questions. If you aren’t getting the information you need, don’t panic. There are a few things you can try. Make your questions more specific (or more open-ended, depending). Paraphrase long winded answers. Request clarification if they lost you. Ask if they can give you an example. Summarize what you’ve heard so far, before shifting into a more relevant topic.
Thank them again. When was the last time you felt overly appreciated?
Summarize next steps. What will you do, with the new information in-hand? What’s needed from your SME at this stage, if anything? Are they willing/able to review your final output? What role might they play in distributing the new documentation?
Step 6—Follow up.
People like to see how they helped.
Send recap notes. This is a good time to catch any incorrectly captured information, and ask for additional details on anything that feels fuzzy.
Share the final product. When you’re ready to publish your content, send a copy to your subject matter expert. They may be just as excited as you are to see the final results (and be more motivated to help you promote it internally). If you use the interview for a public-facing project, they may also share it with their network.
Step 7—Return the favor.
What can you do that would be really, really nice?
Shout out your SME. Is there an opportunity for you to make your SME’s contributions known to more people? If they like public praise, acknowledge them in front of a crowd. (The bigger, the better.) If they don’t love the limelight, loop their manager in so their work doesn’t go unnoticed.
Write them a recommendation. What only takes a few minutes and has a long-term feel good effect? Posting a ringing endorsement on LinkedIn or Workday.
Offer to help *them* with something in your domain. Everyone’s an expert at something. Chances are, there’s something you can do to make your SME’s life a little easier, too.
10 more tips to get the most out of your SMEs
Maybe the seven-step process above is exactly what you were looking for.
But maybe you were hoping for some less conventional advice. Maybe you were hoping for insights crowdsourced from people who make collaborating with even the most challenging subject matter experts look like a cakewalk.
These are those. 👇🏿
1. Ask for an introduction.
You’ve tried every kind of outreach short of carrier pigeon. Take a look around—is there someone with an existing relationship to your SME you can enlist to help you get a foot in the door?
2. Be selective—and think long-term.
If you’re lucky enough to have multiple SMEs to choose from, take stock of their skills and qualifications and cross-reference them against your goals. Consider their ability (and willingness!) to serve as an SME. Assess their interest level in helping others acquire knowledge. Who’s going to help you engage your end users in an active learning process (vs. a one-time event)? Who’s going to partner with you to anticipate, meet, and exceed training and development needs over time?
3. Learn their language.
During your research phase, track down definitions to new-to-you concepts, terms, acronyms, industry jargon, etc. Nothing slows an interview down quite like asking “what does that mean?” a dozen times. Save your questions for the good stuff!
4. Use technology to your advantage.
If your goal is to document a process, and that process takes place on a browser or desktop, ask your SME to create a Tango. Tango will automatically create a step-by-step guide with perfectly cropped screenshots, links, and annotations. It may also save you, your SME, and your end users hours.
Having questions ready to go is smart. Knowing when to deviate from them is even smarter. Nick Wentz, Head of Marketing at Tango, suggests using the “tell me more” tactic to go deeper. “The most insightful pieces of information are usually hidden underneath the surface.” If you’re still coming up short, try asking why five times.
6. Ask your SME for “the one big thing.”
Before you wrap up, ask your subject matter expert the ONE thing your target audience should know. Ideally the two of you will have already covered it, but you may be surprised by their response (and able to tailor your documentation accordingly).
7. Ask what wasn’t asked—and for personal stories.
What if your pre-prepared questions didn’t naturally lead to an opportunity for your SME to make an important point? Leave a little time for your SME to share anything they may have thought about in advance. Rocco Seyboth, Tango’s Product Marketing Lead, has also had great luck asking for personal anecdotes. One, they add entertainment value for the end user. Two, they often lead to lessons learned and pro tips you can incorporate into your documentation.
8. Co-create your deadlines.
Say you can’t get everything you need from your SME in one interview. Invite them into the process for determining a reasonable timeline for a second round.
Don’t be afraid to ask yourself (and your new connection!) what went well and what could have gone better. What could have sped up your discovery process? What could have made your communication more seamless? What would make future collaborations more fun?
The bottom line
Scouring the internet can go a long way, but sometimes there’s no substitute for interviewing a subject matter expert.
If you’re lucky, the two of you will have the desire to make a positive impact on others in common.
If you’re really lucky, your SME may share your belief that sharing knowledge is a practice, not a project—and this interview will be the first of many.
What does SME stand for?
SME stands for subject matter expert.
What is an example of a subject matter expert?
An example of a subject matter expert could be a software engineer who excels at developing applications using a specific programming language.
How do you become a subject matter expert?
Becoming a subject matter expert doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll need to acquire education and training, gain hands-on experience, develop deep expertise, network with others in your industry to establish credibility, and more.
What questions should I ask a subject matter expert?
The best questions to ask a subject matter expert are open-ended ones that allow them to share their knowledge and experience in depth. Avoid asking yes or no questions, and focus on questions that encourage them to provide detailed information about their field of expertise.
How do I make the most of an interview with a subject matter expert?
To make the most of an interview with a subject matter expert, doing your homework beforehand is key. At a minimum: research your SME’s background and relevant information about their field of expertise. Consider the type of information you want to learn from the interview and make a list of questions to guide your conversation.
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