Ten Tips for Interviewing Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)


Today’s post is inspired by the above graphic. I’ve had this hanging on my bulletin board for years. I don’t recall where I came across it, but I found a copy of it on Cathy Moore’s Pinterest page. It never fails to make me laugh, but it is also very true. (At least the part about SMEs is true. I’ve never seen an LMS ooze ectoplasm.)

So often I hear people complain about their SMEs falling off the face of the Earth or having issues getting information. I’m spending this week at a client’s site desperately trying to gather information from multiple SMEs, all of whom are busy installing new machinery or troubleshooting issues. I credit the lessons I’ve learned over the years with getting me through this crazy, time-crunched circumstance with the information I need.

Following is what I’ve learned:

  1. Do your homework. Research what you can about the topic you are discussing with the SME. Use the internet to gather information. Call ahead and ask if there are materials that can be provided in advance.
  2. Plan ahead. Know what you want to get out of the conversation. What is your main goal and what do you need to know to reach that goal?
  3. Write out your questions. A lot of people go into a SME interview and ask questions off the top of their head. This is a good way to forget something important.
  4. Be prepared. Make sure you have everything that you need to conduct the interview. Pencil sharpened, pen full of ink, plenty of paper, iPad charged, tape recorder has batteries, etc.
  5. Be flexible. SMEs are busy, busy people. You will need to be flexible with your time and flexible with the circumstances under which you conduct the interview. Be prepared to conduct the interview while the SME is doing other things.
  6. Set expectations. Let the SME know at the beginning of the interview why you are talking to him, how the information will be used, and how long you intend the meeting to take. Let the SME know what information you already know.
  7. Focus the conversation. Don’t let the SME go off on a tangent or get caught talking about his dogs. SMEs like to share everything they know about the topic, but you only need to know what your audience needs to know. Keep control of the interview so you can make the best use of the time you have.
  8. Thank the SME. Make sure that the SME knows you appreciate the time she took to talk with you. This is not the SME’s job, and you are more likely to get additional help quickly if the SME feels appreciated. Also mention that you will follow up in a few days with any additional questions you may have thought of.
  9. Review your notes. Immediately after your meeting transcribe your notes so that they make sense and flow. Set them aside and then review them again within the next few days looking for gaps or anything that needs clarified. Follow up with the SME via email, phone, or if necessary a second meeting.
  10. Be patient but persistent. Getting additional information or reviews is often challenging. Keep in mind that dealing with your needs is not the SME’s job, just an addition to her job. Make minimal requests and keep them specific. Provide a date that you would like to receive the information or review by and indicate that you will follow up with a phone call if you do not receive the information by that date. Make sure that you give the SME plenty of time. Continue following up until you get what you need, but always inform the SME of your intention to follow up.