6 Tips for Interviewing Brilliant Technical SMEs

by | Original Research

I’m often asked to interview SMEs (subject matter experts) to gather information to write a client’s content. The SME might be a quiet software engineer or a very technical product manager. Some are easy to talk with; others not so much. It’s my job to (gently) pull that information out of their brilliant brains and translate it into compelling content that speaks to the target audience we’re going after.

After doing these types of interviews countless times, I have some tips that can help you when you’re interviewing a SME, so neither of you gets frustrated, and you end up with the information you’re seeking (and the SME walks away feeling like your interview was a positive experience and, hopefully, has a newfound respect for marketers).

Tip #1: It’s your job to think like a marketer, not theirs.

You’re the marketer; they’re the technical expert. Most SMEs I’ve interviewed don’t really understand marketing, and that’s ok. It’s not their job.

That means the information they’re giving you probably doesn’t translate well into marketing-speak. They may skip over why the feature they’re explaining is important or gloss over the challenge it solves for prospects. They may go off on a tangent about the beauty of AI, even though that’s not the information you need. Without being annoying, be sure to ask relevant marketing-type questions so you don’t have information holes later.

Tip #2: Prepare interview questions ahead of time and send them to the SME.

This is key; you must think through what you want to ask the SME by creating relevant questions before you meet. You don’t want to waste their time fumbling for the next question to ask.

The second important step is to send them the questions before you meet. Hopefully, they’ll look them over so they have time to start formulating answers.

Tip #3: Do your research so you don’t look dumb.

If you’re interviewing a technical SME, be sure you’ve done some research on the subject you’ll be discussing. If you’re talking about Kubernetes, you need to have a cursory understanding of what they are and why they’re important.

This helps you gain credibility in the eyes of the SME. In my experience, most technical SMEs are impressed if you have a relatively good understanding of the subject.

Tip #4: Record and transcribe the call.

I almost always record this type of call so I can get it transcribed later. It helps me review the information discussed, especially technical details that I need to research further or I might have missed.

After all, I can only take notes so fast. This step ensures I’ve got all the necessary information, and I can focus on the conversation rather than notetaking.

Tip #5: Don’t be afraid to ask them to define terms you don’t know.

Yes, there will probably be terms they throw out that you have no clue about. Gently stop the SME to ask for a definition and why they’re important.  Of course, this information will also be captured in the recording so you’ll have it for future reference.

Tip #6: Try to keep it short.

SMEs are usually busy and not looking to add another meeting to their calendars. Then you come along—a marketing person. They may think marketing is all fluff, and it’s not really worth their time to talk to you, but they do it because someone in the organization would be unhappy if they didn’t.

This is where you politely ask them for 30 minutes of their time (if it’s a really complex subject, you could even go for 60-minutes). But stick to the agreed-upon length for the meeting. Ask them if you can circle back if you have more questions.

With these tips, you can make the interview experience pleasant for both you and the SME. Above all, don’t be intimidated by their awesome technical knowledge. You can gently pry it out of their brilliant brains and maybe even help them cultivate a newfound respect for marketers.

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