As healthcare marketers and communicators, we often use subject matter expert (SME) interviews as a way to lean on the knowledge of clinicians, nurses and physicians. These exchanges are at the core of our content, and we transform their expertise into messages that speak to patients and consumers.
But it’s no secret that healthcare SMEs have packed schedules and coordinating an interview can be tricky. Once you land a spot on the SME’s calendar, you must make the most out of your meeting — it may be the only chance you have to ask questions and talk with the SME directly.
We tapped a few of our interview pros to share their tips for a successful and productive SME interview. Check out their advice below.
Scheduling the SME interview
Contact the right people
Before you try to schedule an interview, see if you can get contact information for the SME’s administrative assistant. Healthcare experts are often booked solid with appointments, surgeries and last-minute clinic calls. Working with an admin may be a faster way to get time on the calendar. You can also try emailing the SME directly and copying the admin on the message.
Name drop if you can
If someone else in your marketing or communications department has a relationship with the SME, it can be helpful to name drop that person in your introductory email. Seeing the familiar name might trigger a faster response. For example: “Mary Smith in the marketing department said you’d be a great resource for this article.”
Also, check in with the marketing department or your service line liaison and find out whether the expert knows about the project and interview. If not, it may be best for a familiar face or name to reach out first.
Give background on why you need the interview
Even if the SME is aware that you’ll be reaching out, it doesn’t hurt to add more context to your story angle. Include a few details about what you plan to talk about, so the SME knows how to prepare.
Set aside enough time
Scheduling can be tight, but try not to sacrifice your interview time. If you need half an hour to do the interview, don’t try to cram it into a 15-minute conversation. There will be times you’ll need to bend on scheduling, but a rushed conversation is less likely to get you the information you need. On the flip side, be mindful of the SME’s schedule; don’t set aside an hour block if you know the interview will only take 20 minutes.
Preparing for the SME interview
Brush up on the interview topic
Avoid walking into the interview blind, especially if it’s an SME you haven’t worked with in the past. No one is expecting you to be the expert (that’s the SME’s job) but be sure to read up on the subject of your interview. Understanding the SME’s specialty can help you create tailored questions that are likely to prompt more detailed answers.
Do some homework on the SME
Many successful interviews start with building a good rapport with the expert. Take a few extra minutes and do some digging on their background. Look them up on LinkedIn and find out where they went to school or other organizations they’ve worked at. If you find you have something in common, try starting the interview with that. It may help the SME open up and offer more valuable, quotable information.
Get your questions ready
Even a seasoned healthcare communicator can benefit from a little prep work. Spend some time crafting questions and putting them in an order that will help the flow of conversation. If you have the time, don’t try to come up with every question at once. Write a few questions down, work on something else, and come back to the questions a few hours later (or the next day). Reviewing the list after taking a break will give you a fresh set of eyes that may find a topic you forgot to cover.
Send your questions to the SME
If possible, send your questions to the SME in advance. Doing this will help the SME feel more comfortable, and it will also allow the SME to be prepared to answer. Plus, sending advance questions allows time for clarification before the interview, rather than during the conversation.
During the interview
Give yourself an extra five at the start
Always set aside some spare time on your calendar to get your ducks in a row. Review the topic, read through your questions and make sure you are distraction-free before the interview begins (turn that phone to silent, if you can!)
If you’re using a conference line for the interview, this extra time will allow you to get the call set up and make sure all speakers and microphones are working.
Record the conversation
SME interviews can sometimes be challenging, especially when the topic is complex. Recording your interview can help ensure your quotes and information are correct. It also helps you avoid needing more clarification after the interview.
There are many different services that record calls, both for conference lines and regular phone calls. For conference calls, we’re big fans of UberConference and Free Conference Call, which allow people to call in via phone or web. If you find you’re doing more one-on-one calls, apps like TapeACall and Cube ACR are two other fine options.
Lastly, be sure to check with the SME and make sure they’re comfortable with being recorded.
Ease into the conversation
As you start your interview, try not to launch into questions right away. Ease into the conversation by asking about the expert’s practice and their connection to the subject matter.
It can also be helpful to reassure the SME that your conversation is informal and they most likely won’t be quoted word-for-word. While you may be recording the interview, they shouldn’t have to worry about coming up with the perfect sentence. Plus, they’ll probably review the piece before it’s finalized (double-check with your marketing department or project manager about this).
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification
Healthcare topics can get a bit complex at times and it’s not unusual to get lost in the weeds of medical jargon. If you find this happening, don’t be afraid to pause and ask the expert to clarify what they’re talking about. You may even want to read back your notes to make sure you understood what the SME said.
Take advantage of the time you have with the SME and get the information firsthand. Ultimately, this will ensure accuracy and help avoid project delays.
Keep things on track
An SME’s time is valuable, so you need to make the most of your interview. If you find the expert is going off on an unrelated tangent, don’t hesitate to interrupt (politely!) and get the conversation back on track. You could try saying, “Dr. Smith, that’s so interesting. I wish the article had enough space to include that kind of information. But let’s circle back to our topic…”
Find their passion
If you’re looking for a good quote or need to engage an unresponsive SME, dig into their passion for the subject. Try asking questions like:
- Why are you excited about this discovery/technology/program?
- What made you want to have a career in this particular field?
- What is your philosophy or approach to caring for patients?
Leave time for an open-ended question
If you have time, include an open-ended question at the end of the interview. Something along the lines of, “Is there anything else you’d like to chat about?” can allow the SME to elaborate on a response or bring up a topic you may have missed. You’ll often find some great nuggets of information in these answers.
Clarify the review process
Before wrapping up the interview, make sure you double-check the process for reviewing content. If the SME will need to review the piece you’re writing, ask which email is best to use when sending a draft. Some experts may prefer using their personal email, as their work email inboxes can fill up fast.
Also, be sure to let the SME know who will be sending the draft — whether it will be you, your project manager or someone from the marketing team. This can help avoid confusion and keep the review process running smoothly.
If the expert is comfortable sharing their contact information, you can also offer to text them when you’ve emailed the draft. Some SMEs will appreciate the heads up and it can help make sure the email won’t get lost in the inbox.
After the interview
Review your notes right away
Once you’ve finished the interview, take the time to review your notes as soon as possible. Clean up your shorthand and make sure you have a clear understanding of the SME’s answers. Consider highlighting a few key quotes or differentiators that you’ll want to include in your content. This will help surface any pressing follow-up questions and make the content writing process smoother.
Send your follow-up questions with a thank you note
Shortly after your meeting, send a message to thank the SME for setting aside time to speak with you. This is also an excellent chance to include follow-up questions for the expert, in case you missed something or ran out of time during your interview. Sending the questions sooner rather than later can help you avoid delays down the road.
Need an interview partner? WriterGirl has teamed up with many healthcare organizations to lead projects with SME interviews. Drop us a line and learn more about how we can help you with your next marketing or communications project.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 2, 2020. It was originally published on October 17, 2018.