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Interviewing a Subject Matter Expert: What Questions to Ask and How to Prepare

One of my first assignments as a freelance writer involved conducting an interview. Admittedly, I was incredibly nervous. The prospect of selecting the right interviewee and preparing effectively seemed daunting at the time. I had countless questions about who to interview, how to approach them, and what to ask. Plus, I couldn’t believe someone left me in charge of choosing a subject matter expert to interview for such an important writing assignment.

A subject matter expert (SME) is a person who has a deep understanding and expert knowledge of a particular topic, field, or discipline. They are often regarded as authorities in their respective areas because of their expertise and experience. SMEs can provide guidance and expert opinions that help shape practices, policies, and understanding within their fields.

Here are some examples of subject matter experts:

  • Healthcare: A medical doctor who specializes in neurology can be a subject matter expert on brain health and neurological disorders.

  • Technology: A cybersecurity analyst with extensive experience in network security might serve as an SME for organizations looking to protect their digital assets.

  • Finance: A certified public accountant (CPA) with years of experience in corporate finance could be considered an expert in financial regulations and tax planning.

  • Education: An educator with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction may be recognized as an SME in educational methodologies and learning outcomes.

Subject matter experts are often interviewed for their ability to contribute valuable information to projects, research, and discussions, and the public. They might also be involved in training others, developing content, or consulting on specific issues within their area of expertise.

General Questions You May Ask an SME

When interviewing an SME, the questions you ask can vary widely depending on the field of expertise and the specific information you need. Here are some general types of questions that might be helpful when consulting an SME:

Background and Experience:

  • Can you describe your background and how you came to specialize in this field?

  • What projects or experiences have been most influential in developing your expertise?

Common Misconceptions:

  • What are some common misconceptions people have about your field?

  • How do you address these misconceptions in your work or public discussions?

Problem Solving:

  • Based on your experience, what would be the best approach to tackle [a specific issue or problem related to your field]?

  • Have you encountered a similar challenge in your work, and how did you resolve it?

Opinion and Analysis:

  • What is your opinion on [a particular development, technique, policy, etc.] in your field?

  • Can you provide an analysis of [a specific case, example, or scenario]?

Resources for Further Learning:

  • What resources would you recommend for someone looking to deepen their understanding of this area?

  • Are there any books, courses, or websites that you find indispensable in your work?

You may not have time to ask each of these questions, so it may be best to pick two or three questions that are most relevant to your audience.

Preparing for the Interview

Preparing for an interview with an SME includes several steps to ensure the discussion is productive, informative, and respectful of the SME's time and knowledge. Here are some ways to help you prepare for the interview:

  • Research the Subject: Before the interview, thoroughly research the topic, the SME, and the SME's field of expertise. Familiarize yourself with the basic concepts, recent developments, and ongoing debates or challenges in the area. This background knowledge will help you ask informed questions and understand the expert’s responses.

  • Set Clear Objectives: Define what you want to achieve with the interview. Are you looking to gain specific knowledge or insights, clarify complex issues, or gather opinions on a future trend? Knowing your objectives will guide the structure of your interview and the questions you plan to ask.

  • Prepare Specific Questions: Based on your research and objectives, prepare a list of questions. Start with broader questions to ease into the interview and then move to more specific ones. Ensure your questions are open-ended to encourage detailed responses and avoid yes or no answers.

  • Arrange the Logistics: Schedule the interview at a time and place (or digitally) that’s convenient for the SME. Ensure you have all necessary equipment for recording the interview, if needed, and confirm these details with the expert ahead of time. Also, consider whether you will record the interview and be sure to obtain consent from the SME beforehand.

  • Plan for Follow-up: Consider how you will follow up after the interview. You might need additional clarification on some points, or you may want to verify quotes and facts. Planning for this can make the process smoother.

  • Be Flexible During the Interview: While it’s important to have a structured plan, be flexible in your approach. Allow the conversation to flow naturally and be willing to explore interesting tangents that may arise.

Two women sitting across from each other engaging in a conversation.

In Summary

Preparing for an interview with a subject matter expert is a multifaceted process that requires thorough preparation. It involves diligently researching the topic at hand, crafting a list of pertinent questions, and understanding the background and contributions of your SME. This groundwork enhances the quality of the interaction between you and the SME and ensures that you fully leverage the expertise of the SME to enrich your content. Investing time in these preparatory steps sets the stage for a successful interview that can provide valuable content to your audience.

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