SME Interview Questions social image

Over the past few months, content leaders have said:

“You need to interview Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to create really valuable content.”

And I agree. Totally.

But what do you say to SMEs?

What type of questions should you ask them?

The better your questions, the stronger the insights and content you get from them.

I teamed up with seven content experts and they all shared their best questions to ask SMEs — including some best practices.

Let’s get into it.

Pro SME interview questions to get deep expert insights

First of all, shout out to all the content leaders who agreed to share their experiences and expertise on this topic: 

Shannon Howard (Director of Customer & Content Marketing @ Intellum), Marc Cousineau (Director of Content @ Zoovu), Carrie Chowske (Senior Content Lead @ Verbatim), Emily Hare (Global Content Strategy Director @ Publicis Groupe), Rahel Anne Bailie (Content Solutions Director @ Technically Write IT), Rosanna Campbell (Freelance B2B SaaS Content Writer), and Paul Davenport (Head of Content at Boast).

Let’s dive in!

1. Ask the POV question

The first time I interviewed an SME for content was when we ran a content agency.

Our client was in the CPG tech space and we knew nothing about that market.

So we asked them for access to their internal SMEs and they made it happen.

Once we started getting insights from those experts, our content took a whole new direction.

We went from forming inexperienced opinions to sharing strong POVs (that our client’s audience resonated with) from SMEs who’d been living and breathing their industry topics for years.

Speaking about POVs, Intellum’s customer and content marketing manager shared her questions to ask SMEs to get their POVs on topics:

Shannon Howard headshot

Shannon Howard

Director of Customer & Content Marketing @ Intellum

“Besides specific questions on the topic, I usually include:

“1) How do you think about X? << get an idea of their POV

“2) What are your favourite examples of Y?
<< helps you to “see” what they’re talking about

“In today’s world, POVs matter. Almost everyone is saying the same thing, so you need something that cuts through the noise. POVs can do that.

“People are also looking for really practical examples.

“So as much as you can share those real-life experiences, case studies, playbooks, screenshots, etc., the more valuable and helpful that content actually is.”

And when I asked Shannon if there was something she had noticed that was wrong with the way many content leaders approach SME interview questions, she shared really good insights:

“I think I see a few things happen with SMEs:

“1) No timeline established. When do answers need to be provided?

“2) No examples. What does a good response look like? How long or short can it be?

“3) Forgetting context. I usually ask a few contextual questions: What’s your scope? How many people are on your team? 

“What are your primary objectives & initiatives? This helps me understand what informs their answer so I can account for that in the writing.

“4) No follow up. We should make sure SMEs have time to review & approve their content and share the final piece with them when it’s live. 

2. Ask the “Status quo -> Alternative…” question

Still on the matter of extracting POVs, the director of content at Zoovu suggested another tactic he uses to extract the perspectives of SMEs:

Marc Cousineau headshot

Marc Cousineau

Director of Content @ Zoovu

“One framework I tend to use is the following: Status quo -> Problem -> Consequence ->Alternative -> Benefit -> Value. 

“I tend to use this framework to elicit a unique point of view on a topic that is widely written about and then go deeper into each answer if needed. 

“For example, “What is a common strategy you see content marketing teams using that is ineffective or flawed?” 

-> “Why is this a problem?” -> “What should they do instead?”
-> “How do they do this?” -> What is the value of this compared to what they do now?”

“Another format I like to use is to ground questions in their every day and ask for examples as a follow up. 

“For example, “What problem do you want to be able to tell your boss you solved in three months? 

“Why is this a problem? Do you think other content marketers have this problem? Why? How have you tried to solve it before?”

Marc added why content leaders should use the question format(s) he shared in SME interviews:

“I find that a lot of SMEs don’t believe that they are actually subject matter experts and aren’t used to giving a strong point of view on a topic. 

“They need to be asked the same question in a variety of different ways with open-ended questions that vary from general to specific. 

“For example, in my work with industrial maintenance professionals, I found that the SMEs I spoke to were very knowledgeable but very humble. 

“They would give very general responses to broad questions. 

“For example, I might ask, “What is your biggest day-to-day challenge?” and they may respond with something generic. 

“Asking [or adding] a follow-up question like, “If you walked out of work tomorrow and that challenge was no longer on your mind, what would have changed that day? 

“What would have gone away or been added to your day to make it go away?

“Those kind of scenario-based questions encourage SMEs to provide a much more layered and engaging response.”

3. Ask SMEs to share a real-life example of something

This is one of my favourites.

Opinions are great but real-life examples often connect more deeply with audiences.

Verbatim’s content lead shared how she asks SMEs to divulge examples from their real-life experiences:

Carrie Chowske headshot

Carrie Chowske

Senior Content Lead @ Verbatim

“I used to teach a journalism course and one of the questions I always coached my students to ask is “Tell me about a time you faced a challenge with {insert skill here}. 

“But in terms of interviewing an SME, you can ask: 

“Tell me about a time when you realized how you were doing something wasn’t working.” 

“This is really great for like a case study, where you’re trying to get information on data-focused improvements.

“What this will do is give you quotable insights. 

“Whereas, if you ask yes or no questions, sure, you’re gonna get the information you need. But you want something you can quote and quotes are social proof.

“And they’re also visual breaks if you use them as a whole quote.”

Carrie also added a point about letting SMEs freely share their experiences, rather than trying to overly guide the insights they’re sharing:

“I think when it comes to something like thought leadership, the error that usually happens with more green content marketers (or people who aren’t as familiar with the industry of the SME that they’re interviewing) is not letting them talk and tell their story.

“They try to guide the topic of the interview a little too much. 

When asked about any other best practices she could share to use while setting up SME interview questions, Carrie shared that it’s important to keep an open mind:

“When setting up the interview questions, it’s really important to stay open-minded about where the conversation can go because often the reasons we’re doing an SME interview is to get quotable insights or to guide thought leadership.

“And to do that you have to let the person talk. And that means that you can’t have this preconceived notion about where it should go.

“So I think something like Leaps is really great because it gives you the chance to let the person communicate in a more natural way (via voice-to-text) — if you don’t have time to sit down and interview them or they don’t have time to speak to you on a zoom call.”

4. Ask SMEs to ELI5 (Explain Like I’m 5)

This is especially useful when interviewing highly technical SMEs for an audience that’s not as technical as them. You’ll need a way to get your SMEs to share their insights in a way that isn’t too hard for your audience to understand.

The global content strategy director at Publicis Groupe shared how to phrase the question:

Emily Hare headshot

Emily Hare

Global Content Strategy Director @ Publicis Groupe

“Explain X to me like I’m 5 years old/have never heard of it before… “

“How do you see X evolving over the next 2 years and why?”

“Generally, I think these kinds of questions should be as simple as possible, providing context and without acronyms, making things as straightforward as possible. 

“When I was a journalist I’d use those formats to:

“1. get a solid understanding of the topic and key issues that served as a useful basis

“2. get a good understanding of how things might change – around the 2-year mark is where people can extrapolate what’s currently happening and use that to predict. 

“Going much further ahead can make it a bit of a difficult task, so the near future generally works better than in the next ten years.”

When asked for any other best practices to use while setting up SME interview questions, Emily shared the following:

“Read around other interviews/things they’ve written/podcasts they’ve appeared on so you know what their top topics are to speak about and also can push them further if they start using a pre-rehearsed answer that you know they’ve given before. 

“Have a long list of questions and be prepared to be flexible if the conversation takes an interesting turn. 

“Always finish with – is there anything I haven’t asked you that I should have/that would be useful to cover?”

5. Ask the biggest pain point question

If you ask me, “What’s your biggest problem with interviewing SMEs for content?”

I’ll pour out my heart about the frustrations in:

  • getting them to even grant the request in the first place
  • getting them to respond after they already promised to contribute
  • picking out critical, useful insights from the numerous points they share

… and so on.

That’s an example of the level of detail you get when you ask questions about the biggest pain points SMEs have on a topic.

I like how the Content Solutions Director at Technically Write IT put it:

Rahel Anne Bailie headshot

Rahel Anne Bailie

Content Solutions Director @ Technically Write IT

“My preference for question formats is open-ended questions that SMEs can answer from their perspective, such as:

What is your biggest pain point when [trying to get x done]?

“Another question format is imaging a future state. 

“If you could wave a magic wand when you’re [following process x] and get rid of the friction, what would that look like?” 

“It’s a powerful way to elicit what they see as blockers to success.

Of course, you have to run their responses through a reality filter, but it can be a good starting place.”

But Rahel added that there’s really no right or wrong way to approach these questions when interviewing SMEs:

“There’s no absolute right or wrong way to approach SME interview questions. 

“To some extent, therein lies the problem. Sometimes we latch onto a particular method of interview and want to apply it to everyone. 

“It’s necessary to deviate from any formula we might have adopted to get more meaningful responses.”

6. Ask about what people are doing wrong in the industry

One of the questions I (almost) always ask SMEs is “What do you think [audience] often gets wrong with [topic]?”

This often gets them to open up and share deep insights about topics they’re passionate about.

So it was fun to see freelance writer Rosanna Campbell share the same question as a favorite of hers when interviewing SMEs:

Rosanna Campbell headshot

Rosanna Campbell

Freelance B2B SaaS Content Writer

“What do you see people getting wrong about [topic]?” 

“Or “What are some specific examples of how you’ve applied [topic] in your day-to-day work?” 

“You want to get your SMEs to share unguarded opinions because that’s where the value is. 

“SMEs have built up their expertise over time — it’s not something you can look up on Google. 

“But if you ask boring questions, they’ll give you boring answers that sound exactly like the standard AI-generated answers you can find anywhere. 

“My experience is also that, if I’m having a fun conversation, it will also end up being a fun read. 

“I was recently interviewing an SME on the topic of content marketing, and it ended up being a long, ranty chat that produced some absolutely banging pull quotes. 

“The SME got fired up, and so did I.

“The end result was an interview that gave me ideas for at least 4 other articles and made me totally rethink how I think about content.”

And I threw the question to Rosana myself, asking if there’s something she’d noticed that’s wrong with the way many content leaders approach SME interview questions. 

Her response:

“I’d say not enough content leaders are using SME interviews in the first place. 

“Obviously, it depends on the goal of the specific piece of content, but if you’re aiming for share-worthy, high-converting blog posts, then SMEs can make all the difference. 

“In terms of asking the right questions — I’d say that I see a lot of content writers who’ve clearly asked very basic (and frankly rather boring) questions, like “What is [topic]?” 

“That’s a waste of the SME’s expertise. I’d recommend asking more detailed, specific questions that will produce real-world stories, strongly held opinions, and original insight.”  

7. Ask how they got into the industry

In many cases, this is a great ice-breaker.

It’ll often get SMEs fired up and warm up their appetite to share even more.

So I liked how the head of content at Boast shared how he asks this question:

Paul Davenport headshot

Paul Davenport

Head of Content @ Boast

“How did you find your way into this [industry/sector/market] in the first place?”

“How have your goals evolved since you first entered [industry/sector/market] to today?

“No one was born an SME, and understanding how they got there in the first place can be eye-opening. 

“Especially when talking to startup or tech founders, for instance, their journey into the space is never a standard one. 

“Your audience may find a version of themselves in the backstory that your SMEs share, sparking not just inspiration, but more conversations and opportunities for engagement down the line.”

Paul further shared a word of caution against over-preparing questions for SME interviews:

“I’ve noticed that a lot of folks struggle to strike the balance between ‘due diligence’ when preparing to interview an SME and ‘over-preparing’ — often to the point of making assumptions. 

“While you never want to be on the back foot when conducting an interview, you do want to give your SME an opportunity to teach you something new (and by extension your audience). 

“If you go into the interview dead set on attributing specific answers to your SME through leading questions, for instance, you’re not really creating value with the exercise. 

“Give the SME as much of the floor as you can and be receptive to being pushed out of your comfort zone when they throw curveballs your way. 

“TL;DR when you learn something in the interview, your audience will too — and it’s not an indictment on your own subject matter expertise, but a tribute to your inquisitive spirit.” 

Ask questions that get SMEs talking

Ultimately, the key is to ask open-ended questions that encourage SMEs to share their unique perspectives and experiences. 

Also, don’t be afraid to get creative and have fun with the interview process.

Thankfully, you can use the SME interview question formats above to drive engaging conversations, get valuable insights, and create content that resonates with your audience(s). 

Victor Ijidola
Co-founder at Leaps | Website

Hi, I’m Victor 👋🏽 — co-founder @ Leaps, a tool that makes it super easy to get insights from multiple SMEs & execs at the same time — without calls & meetings.