SMEs are a fount of knowledge right at your fingertips. Here’s how to tap into them and leverage their insights to create more powerful and effective thought leadership content.
Your subject matter experts, or SMEs, are a wealth of knowledge on the issues impacting your industry, the challenges keeping your customers up and night, and your firm’s unique approach to resolving those problems. In other words, their brains hold all the information you need to write great content.
Getting the details out of their heads and into an article or blog post, however, is often easier said than done. Having sat in the interviewer’s seat on countless occasions, we’ve narrowed in on the following five tactics for making the process easier, more productive, and more enjoyable for all parties involved:
1. Provide a framework
2. Keep asking why
3. Put things into context
4. Play it back
5. Use an outline
1. Provide a framework
The subject matter experts who are always at the top of your list to interview are the ones with the most experience and the most insight. By default, this also makes them some of the busiest people in your organization. Getting them to sit still for an hour-long interview can be challenging enough. Asking them to take time in advance to review a list of questions and prepare some thoughts is a luxury busy schedules don’t often permit.
It can help to use a simple framework for all your SME conversations. At Rattleback, we like to use a situation-complication-resolution model. Start with the situation to get the lay of the land and understand what’s happening around the issue or topic on a macro level. Then, dive into the complications—what’s making this issue more challenging or more urgent for clients right now? Finally, talk through the resolution and how the company is helping its clients alleviate or at least work around the complications.
Even when you can’t give a SME a full set of questions pre-interview, giving these three prompts in advance, or even at the beginning of the interview, can help SMEs frame up the story in their heads. And it can help keep your conversation on track, so you make the best use of your SME’s time.
2. Keep asking why
SMEs know their topics well, and they sometimes assume that their audience knows more than they really do. So, in addition to asking the “whats” and the “hows”, channel your inner toddler and ask a lot of why questions, too. These questions can really help SMEs translate their knowledge into more relatable terms, and they can often lead you to the most interesting aspects of the story.
You can use this tactic in all phases of the framework. For example, when talking about the situation, you can ask, “Why is that the way things have always been done?” or “Why is the current situation being accepted as the status quo?” And when you get to the resolution conversation, you can be even more persistent: “Why does your company approach it that way?” “Why is your viewpoint so much different from your competitors?” “Why is that solution going to work where others have fallen short?” “Why will this benefit your clients over the long-term?”
You may end up feeling a little bit like a broken record. But it’s worth it. You’ll gain a deeper and broader understanding of the topic area this way—which will help with your writing overall. And you can also uncover some new insights or novel ways of thinking about the issue that will make the content more compelling.
3. Put it into context
If your SME has a specific example of how the resolution has worked or is working for a client, then this part is easy. Ask the SME to tell you the story (using the situation, complication, resolution framework), and you’ve got an example that can help your readers really connect with your content.
If the topic being discussed is more about the company’s viewpoint and not necessarily a resolution that’s been tried and tested in real life just yet, then this can be harder to get at. You can ask the SME to describe a hypothetical situation. Or ask him or her to make connections to another industry or market segment that’s experienced a similar situation/complication scenario.
We had a recent conversation where the SME drew parallels between what’s happening with panic buying in the industrial world right now and what was happening in the consumer world a few years ago—you remember when no one could find toilet paper? That kind of example—one that everyone can relate to—really helped to paint the picture of the situation and bring the story to life.
4. Play it back
Using the framework, the whys, and the context questions should generate a lot of great conversation and good fodder for your content piece. If your SME is being very forthcoming and regaling you with many details, it’s a good idea to take a break every so often and “play it back.” In other words, summarize and repeat back the key points of that part of the conversation.
Think of this as a gut check—or a way to verbally validate that what you’re hearing is what your SME is actually saying. This can be especially useful with particularly complex topics or situations, complications, or resolution that have multiple components or steps to them. For example, you could frame it up like, “So, there are really two complications at play here – complication A (description here) and complication B (description here).” Or, “It sounds like your recommended resolution is a 4-step process,” and go on to describe the four steps.
Doing this during the interview gives the SME the chance to correct you if you misheard or misunderstood something, or to add in additional key points if needed. It’s also a really good way to get a jump on your outline – see step 5.
5. Use an outline
I like to take A LOT of notes during an interview. (I also like to record the call if possible—as long as the SME agrees—so I can go back and relisten if my notes aren’t crystal clear). The outline, then, is my tool for cleaning up my notes, capturing the key points, and fleshing out the flow of the article.
At Rattleback, our outlines align with our framework, so we divide them into situation, complication, and resolution sections, with examples mixed in where applicable. I like to keep my outlines detailed. Not everything in the outline makes the final cut – but at least I have documentation of the full story that I can reference as I write.
If timing permits, it’s also a good idea to share the outline with the SME. Even if you get in the habit of doing verbal playbacks during the interview, this is another gut check to make sure you have the main points right before you write. It also gives the SME the opportunity to add anything in that he or she didn’t mention during the call.
Make every talk a good talk
Great SMEs are great SMEs because they’re really good at doing what they do. That doesn’t necessarily make them experts at talking about it. And it can be frustrating—for them and for you—to spend valuable time on a conversation that goes nowhere. Try using these strategies to get into SMEs’ heads in a good way. And more quickly surface the knowledge, insights, and ideas that makes for great thought leadership content that you and your SMEs can both feel good about.
Read this article for more in-depth thoughts on how to work with your subject matter experts to shape a compelling argument.