How to Conduct Productive, Insightful SME Interviews

Erica Thompson

Erica Thompson

Head of Agency Marketing

As marketers, our job is to communicate a message and build a brand, which often entails having a working knowledge about a variety of topics related to organization, product or spokesperson we’re promoting. But compelling thought leadership requires marketers to “go deep” and really showcase our understanding of a topic, especially in a complex field like financial services. Interviewing a subject matter expert (SME) is a great way to glean critical information for marketing efforts. If you’re not an expert on the topic at hand, the best way to think or write like one is to talk to someone who is. Here are four tips to help you conduct fruitful, efficient interviews:

Draft and prioritize questions ahead of time

Before you sit down with an SME, identify your objectives for the interview and write down the questions you need to ask in order to achieve them. If you’re interviewing a fintech CEO about trends in that sector for a year-end blog post, you probably don’t need a detailed recap of the company’s history. Additionally, it pays to make sure the information you’re looking for is not available elsewhere. Your source’s time is valuable and limited, so it’s best to do your homework ahead of time.

Once your questions are drafted, put them in order of priority based on how much time you have for the interview, keeping in mind that open-ended questions (“How has recent market volatility affected your investing strategy?”) take longer to answer than those with straightforward factual answers (“What is your revenue goal for the third quarter?”). Ask your high-priority questions early on to avoid running out of time before getting the answers you need.

Brush up on key terms and relevant data

Financial services has its own language, and if you’re talking to an expert, he or she is probably fluent. If you do not spend much time “in the weeds” of a particular topic or area of focus, give yourself a quick refresher. Before interviewing an asset manager, make sure you know alpha from beta, Lipper ratings from LIBOR, and when you hear “PE,” how to determine whether it means “private equity” or “price-to-earnings.” In addition, take a look at what’s going on in the markets that day. If there’s been a headline-making drop in the Dow or a material change in oil prices, that context may be relevant to your discussion.

Listen actively, and take smart notes

Listening attentively takes focus and self-discipline, and is especially important during an interview. Resist the temptation to let your mind wander or think ahead to your next question. Truly good listeners don’t just remain silent while the other person talks; they ask follow-up questions to probe for additional information or better understand the other person’s point of view.

Speaking of retaining information: taking notes is a useful tactic, but it can also be a distraction if you’re preoccupied with writing down every response verbatim. Where possible, use a smartphone or a digital recorder. You can still take written notes, but having an audio recording for backup allows you to focus on the main ideas and most important takeaways instead of scrambling to capture every word. And if you use a recorder, glancing at the timer and writing down the time in minutes and seconds creates a useful marker for a point in the conversation you want to go back and listen to later, such as numbers or other details you need to verify before incorporating them in written materials.

Always end with the same question

Before wrapping up an interview, offer your SME the chance to expand upon something you discussed, or add an insight you may not have thought to ask about. Simply asking “is there anything we didn’t cover that you’d like to add?” may yield a nugget of brilliance–or spark an idea for your next marketing campaign.


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