Interviewing experts (get tips that really work)

Interviewing subject matter expert

Interviewing subject experts isn’t scary – if you’re prepared.

If you don’t set yourself up for success, welp …

No one wants to see that happen. That’s why you need to lay the groundwork before you contact anyone.

Interviewing: Why Would I Do That?

Interviewing experts adds depth, credibility and trustworthiness to your marketing content. People pay attention when you capture and share insights from respected sources. Experts elevate your content and help keep it from being self-serving.

Other benefits of interviewing experts:

  • You can explore topics that no one else is doing
  • You can discover new twists on topics everyone is covering
  • You can dive deep into a complex topic that you wouldn’t be able to write about on your own
  • You’ll get more mileage from your content because your experts will share it with their networks
  • You’ll be able to increase visibility for your brand and enhance your website in search

Building Your List of Experts

I shared 14 ways to find expert sources for interviews in my last blog post. Be sure to allow yourself enough time to find the right experts. That can be a time-consuming process, especially in busy news cycles like we’re having now. Front-line experts are tied up giving interviews to journalists around the world on a multitude of public health, economic and business topics. Your thought leadership article on how transformative CEOs can drive improvements in workplace safety will take a back seat.

How to Approach Subject Experts

Cold outreach can be tough. Throughout my career as a journalist and marketer, I’ve been ignored more times than I can count – not to mention having doors slammed in my face and phones disconnected. It’s best to develop relationships with experts and engage them in conversations in person or online before contacting them for interviews.

An old reporter’s “trick” is to make friends with experts’ assistants because they can help you get your foot in the door. They also maintain schedules, know the best way to contact your experts (their bosses) and often help streamline the content review and approval process. The information they provide is golden, so treat them well.

When requesting interviews, you might need to alternate emails and phone calls. I usually start with email because you can provide more necessary details about your request in writing than in a voicemail.

In your email to experts, assistants, media relations departments and spokespeople, include:

  • Who you are, who you work for and where you’ll publish and share your content
  • Your availability and your deadline
  • The types of questions you’ll ask
  • How long you’ll need for the interview
  • Review and editing options for your expert
  • How your expert could benefit. For example, will you link to the expert’s website, writing or research?
  • Next steps

Now, the Waiting Game

After sending an initial email, I’ll wait two to three business days. If I don’t receive a response, I’ll email again. If that yields no results, I’ll call the prospective source, media relations rep, etc., within one to two business days. If I get crickets after the third try, I usually move on. If I have a limited pool of experts and a tight deadline, however, I might try contacting another person in the organization. Being persistent (but not stalker scary) and reaching out to multiple people will often get results.

If all else fails, consider a personal appeal based on your or your family’s experience with the expert’s organization. For example, if you want to interview a hospital CEO and the media relations department ghosts you, consider emailing the CEO or the CEO’s assistant, explaining how you and your family have received top-notch care at the hospital and how grateful you are. Provide enough details to be convincing, but don’t write a novel. Explain the nature of the expertise you seek and how much it would mean to you and your audience to interview the CEO.

Above all, respect experts and their time. They’re busy people who are in high demand and have many priorities. By granting you an interview and sharing their expertise, they’re doing you a favor.

What About Email Interviews?

In my experience, email interviews fall flat. Experts typically don’t answer questions in detail over email, which means multiple exchanges back and forth to flesh out answers. That’s a drag on resources and time. In addition, live interviews provide more color and context than you’d ever get in email responses. Sources typically treat email questionnaires as a “checkbox” item – they simply want to get it done.

Nothing beats a live and open conversation for quotable, shareable content.

How Many Subject Experts Should I Interview?

Writers often wonder how many experts they should interview. Avoid one-source stories because they’re weak and often read like promotional fluff, which affects your credibility and makes it difficult for your audience to trust you. Balanced stories that present multiple views are thought-provoking and engaging.

For example, I wrote an in-depth blog post about remote work and why more people were working from home before COVID-19. I could have written a one-sided article about the benefits of remote work, but that didn’t reveal the full story. Studies have shown that remote work also has disadvantages, so I dug deep to find experts who could discuss the good and the bad.

Generally, I recommend at least two – and ideally three – experts per story, but a complex subject or white paper, for example, could require more. Aim for quality over quantity, and do your best to give equal time to different viewpoints. By interviewing multiple experts, you’ll match your editorial standards to that of a magazine or newspaper and open the door to follow-up interviews and articles.

How to Prepare for and Ace Expert Interviews

Before interviewing subject experts, make sure you research your topic and your experts. If you don’t know anything about your subject, you’ll waste their time and yours. When you schedule interviews – and after you’ve done your initial homework – ask your experts for any relevant background material and review these assets as part of your interview prep.

Next, prepare and share your questions in advance if experts ask for them. They might need to gather statistics and other information, so be sure to build in time for that. Ask intelligent, open-ended questions that drive inspired responses and deter yes/no answers. For most interviews, I start with general questions and become more specific as the conversation progresses.

When you schedule interviews, allow enough time to cover all your questions and be sure to coordinate time zones. It’s beyond embarrassing to call an expert two hours early because you forgot about the time difference.

Top Tips From an Interview Pro

So, the big day is here – it’s time for your interview. Here are my best tips for success:

  • Provide an introduction. Before you dive into your questions, provide a quick recap of who you are, your topic, your audience and where you’ll publish the content.
  • Begin with easy questions. Help your expert relax and get the conversation flowing.
  • Don’t fill the silence. Your expert might need a moment to gather thoughts and form answers. Long pauses can feel awkward, but trust that they can lead to compelling, quote-worthy material.
  • Be flexible. If your expert goes in a different direction than you expected, go with it and then gently guide the interview back on track.
  • Respect your expert’s time. If you’re nearing the end of your allotted time and you still have several questions, you need to make a judgment call about how to handle the situation. If you know the expert has a hard stop, don’t ask for more time. If you don’t know his schedule, you can tell him he’s been very generous with his time and ask for a few more minutes. If he declines for time constraints or other reasons, consider emailing your remaining questions – assuming it’s not a large list. Whatever you do, avoid contacting your expert for a second interview. It sends the message that you don’t value your expert’s time and makes you look unprofessional.
  • Share next steps. If your expert will review the article before you publish it, let him know when he can expect a draft. Meet or beat that deadline.
  • Send a thank-you email. Immediately after your interview, email your expert, telling him you appreciated his insights and time. You can also remind him you’ll send a draft by X date.

How to Capture Interviews

For many years, I’ve taken notes on my computer during interviews. I’m a fast typist and prefer this method because it’s easy for me, I can record the insights I need and omit those I don’t, and I avoid the time suck of transcribing calls from audio recordings. Taking notes during interviews is faster and more efficient than the laborious process of starting and stopping a recording repeatedly to capture an expert’s comments.

Some writers aren’t fast typists, however, or they lack confidence and are afraid they’ll miss an important point. If this is you, consider a resource such as UberConference. It records calls and provides searchable transcripts. A free plan will record for up to 45 minutes. You can add more time with a paid plan.

No matter what method you use to capture expert interviews, be sure to write your content while the interviews are fresh in your mind. It’s always easier to write soon afterward than it is to wait months. Waiting also puts you at risk for losing your notes or recordings. In addition, if you need to clarify an expert’s point, it’s best to do that as soon as possible.

Go Forth and Write!

Now that you’ve got a blueprint for how to find subject experts, conduct interviews and capture their comments, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and start creating relevant, engaging and shareable content that your audience craves.

Now, to You

Have you landed an expert interview that you’re proud of? If not, what’s holding you back? Let us know in the comments below.

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