Conducting a successful interview with a subject matter expert (SME) is an art, not a science. It should be a warm, engaging conversation. An SME is more likely to open up and provide excellent answers if you show genuine interest in what they are saying.
1. Do Background Research
Come ready with at least some basic knowledge of the topic. It’ll demonstrate to the SME that you’re a competent professional and that you value their time. Plus, you’ll be able to ask more specific questions.
For example, I recently interviewed a cardiologist about arrhythmias. Going into the interview, I learned in my preliminary research that atrial fibrillation (AFib) is the most common type of irregular heartbeat among U.S. patients. Armed with that information, I crafted more questions about AFib and asked fewer questions about other types of arrhythmias that are less common.
You should also do some research about your SME. Have they written articles or done other interviews about this topic? You can use that information as a springboard to craft questions.
2. Be Willing to Go Off-Script
Don’t get stuck in your prepared questions. Listen closely to the SME's answers and expand on them.
In the majority of the interviews I’ve conducted, the best quotes have come from follow-up questions. This usually happens after an SME has made an off-hand remark or reveals a detail that caught your attention. Ask them to elaborate on it!
Those unexpected comments may inspire a different line of questioning than the one you had prepared. That’s ok! Roll with it. You can always refer to your prepared list later if necessary.
3. Be an Active Listener
Make sure you understand what the SME is explaining. Repeat back what you think they said, and ask them if your summary is correct.
If you got it wrong, this gives the SME the chance to be more clear. If you’re correct, the SME may respond with an even better quote or it’ll prompt them to provide additional details.
I am not a medical professional but I interview a lot of doctors. Physicians sometimes use specific jargon that the general public wouldn’t necessarily understand.
In the recent interview with the cardiologist, for example, I summarized some of his answers in more simple language. By doing so, this particular SME was able to confirm whether I was stating the information correctly. Armed with that affirmation, I was better able to write an article that was both accurate and easy to understand.