Jodi McCaffrey

How to Get the Most from an Interview with a Subject Matter Expert

Good healthcare content conveys information. Great healthcare content tells a story while delivering it. To get to the core of your topic, you’ll need to act like a reporter and get input from experts in the field. I interviewed five freelance healthcare writers — Erin L. Boyle, Tricia Chaney, Kristen Indahl, Amanda Mattison and Melissa Mills — about their process. Here’s how to get subject matter experts (SMEs) to give up the “good stuff” that makes great content.

Prepare for the Interview

Although most writers will agree that you need to be flexible and allow the conversation to flow naturally, most also agree that some prep before the call is essential. Winging it doesn’t work when you’re interviewing busy professionals.

·         Learn all you can about an SME before the interview so you can make the most of your time together. Some SMEs can only give you 10 minutes of their busy day, so ensure that you use every second of those minutes to your advantage. – Erin

·         Try to find the person on LinkedIn to get a sense of who they are and what they do.

Melissa Mills

·         Write questions in advance, and try to have an idea of the direction you’re taking with the article to help focus the discussion. – Tricia

·         Sometimes you can let the conversation flow organically. Certain insights from the SME may lead you down an interesting path that you may not have previously considered if you had mapped out the conversation in advance. – Kristen

Ask Insightful Questions

For most writing assignments, you’ll need to cover the standard Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, but truly great content takes it a step further and tells a story. Start by asking yourself why someone should care about this topic, why it’s interesting, and what’s new?

Ask open-ended questions. If there’s only one source for the article, ask what key message they hope to get across.

Tricia Chaney

·         SMEs are expecting specific questions about their research or areas of practice, which I ask, too, but often they want to discuss their passion, their why, and tell their stories. One question I sometimes ask is “Tell me your story.” These quotes can be among the best. – Erin

·         I always ask my favorite question at the end of an interview: “Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you feel is important to add?” Nine times out of 10, it leads to a solid conclusion or a beautiful quote. – Kristen

Here are some questions to consider using during your next interview:

  • What makes this hospital/technique/research unique?
  • What would you tell your neighbor about this topic?
  • Tell me your story.
  • How did you feel when you discovered/accomplished this? How did it change you?
  • What’s new about this topic?
  • What do you imagine the future holds regarding this topic?
  • Why did you conduct this research? What inspired you to investigate this deeper?
  • Why does this subject interest you?
  • Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you feel is important to add?
  • What else would you like to say that we haven’t yet discussed?
  • What’s the one takeaway that you want readers of this article to leave with?

Stay On Topic

Sometimes an interview is short and abrupt, just a few minutes with a surgeon between cases. Other times, it’s long-winded with many tangents —  some helpful, some not. Deftly steering the conversation back to the topic takes some finesse.

·         Send questions in advance. Then, your subject can think about their answers, and the questions become almost like an agenda, helping everyone stay on target. – Tricia

·         If an SME goes off message, I listen politely, make non-committal responses, and then return to my questions. Want to keep the interview on track? Validate but don’t engage. – Erin

I continually reroute us back to the questions so that they get answered. However, remember that the rabbit trails frequently lead to the best parts of the story.

Amanda Mattison

Ask for Clarity

You may not understand everything your interview subject is discussing. If this happens to you, don’t let your ego stand in the way of understanding the topic. The worst thing to do is to pretend that you get it, and then when the piece is published, you—or worse, your client—get an angry phone call from the expert.

Our SMEs on SMEs add:

·         Try not to feel bad about not knowing something; it’s why you’re interviewing someone who is an expert. – Melissa

·         I send the article to the person interviewed when appropriate to ensure I got it right. – Tricia

·         I ask if they can think of an analogy or an example that will help readers understand – Amanda

Sometimes rephrasing what you think the SME is saying or asking your questions again in different ways can get you to an answer that your audience will understand.

Kristen Indahl

·         Don’t despair in these cases. Summarize and quote your SME where you can. If you still don’t understand a mechanism or process, seek an additional interview elsewhere. – Erin

Bonus Tips

Our panel shared some bonus tips for working with SMEs:

·         Don’t take it personally if they’re rude. Some also get really picky about wording and will want to make a bunch of changes. It’s not personal. – Tricia

Enjoy the process! You can ask these masters of medicine whatever you want. You have access to some of the best physicians in the world, luminaries in their fields, if only for a few minutes. Bask in your chance to ask them exactly what you need to best enhance your story.

Erin L. Boyle

·         I have noticed that people love to talk about themselves, especially when someone else is genuinely interested. So, I set myself aside and make space for them to be on stage. – Amanda

·         Use Zoom or other video call platforms that give you the ability to record the call so that you don’t have to try to keep up with notes. This way you can fully engage in the conversation—and not note-taking. – Melissa

Crafting content that entertains and informs is part art and part science. Every interview is an opportunity to hone your craft and adjust your process.

What questions do you use to elicit good content from SMEs?

Listen to how we interview on the #SavvyScribe Podcast!