How to Interview a SME: Solutions for Difficult Q&A Situations

By Sara Donnelly.
How to interview a subject matter expert.
How to interview a subject matter expert.   Credit:  Bernard Spragg  License: CC0

Interviewing a subject-matter expert (SME) isn't always easy. Use these tips to keep the interview on track.

Content marketing has a lot in common with traditional journalism. Much as a reporter might need to make half a dozen phone calls to understand the context and verify the accuracy of the story she’s writing, in the content marketing field, you’ll often need to tap into subject-matter expert (SME) knowledge to get to the heart of your subject, whether that means talking to an internal expert, an outside industry expert, or one of your business’ customers. You’ll need to dive in deeply and get all the information you need to create a narrative that moves readers to action, whether you’re developing a ghostwritten thought leadership story, a solution-oriented white paper, or a customer case study.

When interviewing a subject-matter expert, consider their story in the context of the hero’s journey. Finding the professional triumph and adversity that defines their particular plot is part of the successful interview.

But what if your main character turns out to be a tough interview? Here are three common reasons why a SME interview might hit the skids, and how to get it rolling again:

1. Your SME is too self-promotional

If we had a nickel for every corporate source who thought good brand journalism was just a thinly veiled attempt at the hard sell we’d be doing the backstroke through coins like Scrooge McDuck.

You can’t really blame an SME for expecting you want the party line, or even hoping that’s all you want, since that tired script is easy to recite. This interview pitfall is so common, in fact, that I’d go into a talk with your SME, especially an internal SME, expecting that you will have to gently push them to stray from the script. Have a curious, critical cap on while your SME is talking, and follow up on self-promotional stories by digging for the conflict. This isn’t to say that you’re a muckraker, but you are looking for the problem in any story because it’s the problem that makes a story interesting and inspiring.

By problem, we mean the pain points through which your SME learned the most. Say you have an SME who starts out the interview by continuing to talk about a big award the company just won for highest sales in the sector. She’s saying the typical stuff — the team worked hard, best team ever, quality product, etc. Boilerplate accolades that a reader can recite with their eyes closed. Get them past that deadening content by digging deeper with questions like:

  • What do you think specifically went right last year to create record sales? (You might strengthen this question by referring to a recent off-year or string of off-years and ask what changed. This is where your background research can really inform your questions.)
  • Last year was a great year, but can you talk about a year that wasn’t so great? What specifically was different? (This will get them talking about what they’ve learned, but make sure they get specific otherwise you’ll end up with something bland like “We all just clicked, and it was marvelous.”)
  • What are the three things you think any sales team can learn from what went right last year? (Again, specifics make for strong content. If your interview is flatlining in self-promotion, getting your source to be very specific about lessons learned can revive it by making the conversation more unique and more educational.)

2. They say something great and then add “But you can’t use that”

Here’s another one that comes up all the time: Your SME tells you an interesting story — usually one in which something unusual happened, which often means either the company was in particularly dire straits, or it overachieved in some notable fashion, or both. The story is great—it’s got real and relatable pain points, showcases the company’s unique skillset, and has specific lessons for the reader in spades.

Then your SME pulls the rug out. “Too bad we can’t get into all that,” they say. “Client would get upset.” Or they simply frown and say the phrase every journalist dreads: “You’re not going to use that, right?”

Sometimes there are clear reasons why an anecdote or data point can’t be used: It’s something that may be protected under a non-disclosure agreement, for instance. In other cases, it could just be a matter of the client’s vanity. He doesn’t want to appear weak, or admit to mistakes, even though they help showcase the path his business has taken. How do you work out what the situation is, and salvage a great story that your SME doesn’t want to share publicly?

Here’s what to do:

  • Don’t automatically chuck the quote whole cloth, as you also have an obligation to protect good content.
  • Try get to the bottom of their reluctance—are they worried about offending a client by mentioning them by name? Is there something else that is particularly touchy? Give in on details step by step. For example, rather than agreeing immediately not to use the story at all, ask if you can use it and only note what sector the company is in. If that’s still not agreeable, scale it back even further by asking if you can turn the example into a hypothetical. Give way inch by inch until you find the compromise. (Being careful to stop the negotiations if you sense they’re getting annoyed with you.)
  • If your SME still says you can’t use the quote, and assuming you haven’t exhausted their patience, level with them that this is a very compelling story that presents the company in an excellent light — is there a way to rework it so that you can use it? What does your SME suggest? Bringing the SME in as an ally in figuring this out may motivate them to help you use it.

3. They’re too “inside baseball”

Does your SME revert to jargon-heavy sector speak? Are they saying a lot but not, you know, in words anyone will understand?

Do you understand

Redirect them away from corporate jargon into more universal problems and solutions that will appeal to your audience. Be polite, but not shy about doing this.

Remember—your SMEs are busy people, and every minute you waste on useless quotes is a minute less you have for the good ones. Part of your job as interviewer is to help your source tell their story in the clearest way possible. Be honest with them about this if necessary, with a question like, “Can you reword that for the layman? I just want to make sure everyone understands this great information.”

If there’s an important piece of jargon that just has to be used in your quote, you can always clarify it with a simple definition.

Another way to keep your quotes clear and simple is to make your questions clear and simple. As former journalist and founder of C-SPAN Brian Lamb once said, “My basic approach to interviewing is to ask the basic questions that might even sound naive, or not intellectual. Sometimes when you ask the simple questions like ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What do you do?’ you learn the most.”

In other words—never underestimate the power of the simple question.


Steering a brief interview toward quote gold is a tough job. You’ve got to be prepared at the start and able to listen to your source while you tack to keep the conversation moving. To recap, here are the roadblocks you’re likely to encounter, and tips on getting around them:

  • Keep your SME away from self-promotional boilerplate toward specifics about pain points and how they overcame them; in other words, the “conflict” in your story
  • Resist throwing away great quotes that include sensitive information. Instead, work with your source to include as much information as you can.
  • Make your readers’ job easy by including quotes with little to no industry jargon, even if your writing is for the industry. Simple, clear phrases make for strong writing. Ask your source to clarify for the layman anything you think might be confusing.

Practice these strategies until they’re second nature, and you’ll be well on your way to being not only an ace content writer but also an interview artist.

For more tips on mastering the craft of content marketing, download our new ebook, The Art of the Voice.

Sara Donnelly

Sara Donnelly

Sara brings more than 15 years of experience as a writer, reporter, and editor to Eucalypt. She specializes in long-form narrative, in-depth reporting, and crawling inside complex topics so that she can write about them in clear, engaging prose. At Eucalypt, she writes copy of all shapes and sizes as the resident word nerd.

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