By Kara-Marie Hall BSN RN
Senior Reporter
April 18, 2022

10–12 minutes to read

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    The SME Interview: How to Interview Experts Like a Pro 

    sme interview

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    As a nurse, you’ve probably been interviewed on many occasions and have grown accustomed to it. But what happens when, as a nurse writer, you are the interviewer? You may find yourself in this scenario if you’re asked to conduct an SME interview, or subject matter expert interview for a news story, feature article, white paper, case study, or some other type of deliverable..

    In this post, we explore what a subject matter expert is and how freelance nurse writers can nail an SME interview — even if you dread interviewing. 

    [Editor’s note: And for a deeper dive into this subject – including how to overcome nervousness during an interview – check out our course Passion, Profit, Prestige: How to Write Health Articles for Money.]

    What Is a Subject Matter Expert?

    Like the name implies, a subject matter expert is someone who is an expert in a certain subject. For example, if you’re working on a story about rheumatoid arthritis, you may want to speak with a rheumatologist because they can provide in-depth information about the condition. 

    Patients can also be regarded as experts in their own healthcare journey. For example, one of your clients asks you to interview a patient regarding their experience with a particular health condition or medical event (such as a surgery). 

    Overall, quoting subject matter experts can add credibility to the piece. It can also help your clients improve their search engine optimization (SEO) ranking and achieve other marketing goals. 

    What type of questions should you ask the SME? It depends on where you are in the interview process.

    SME Interview Questions 

    Before the Interview 

    Instead of rushing to interview the SME, take the time to thoroughly prepare. Try to get as much information from your client as possible to understand their expectations when it comes to SME interviews. Below are some sample questions.

    • How would you like me to interview the SME? For instance, would you prefer by phone, or by email?
    • Do you already have an SME in mind for me to interview?
    • Is there anything, in particular, you wanted me to ask them, so I don’t leave anything out?

    Once you understand your client’s SME policy, find an appropriate SME and vet them to ensure they’re credible. You can conduct the vetting process by email. Here are some examples of what to put in your email:

    1. Tell them who you are and why you’re contacting them
    2. Ask them: “Would you be willing to share your insights with our readers?”
    3. Ask them: “Are you available for an interview on (insert day) at (insert time)?”
    4. Alternatively, you can ask them (if permitted by your client), “Would you be willing to answer a few of our questions via email?”
    5. Let them know your deadline for conducting the interview

    What is the Best Way to Interview an SME?

    Freelance writers and journalists often debate about the best way to interview an SME. Some balk at the idea of performing email interviews, while others say it’s the new trend these days. Next are a few pros and cons of each method. 

    Phone or Zoom Interview 

    Pros: Responses often sound more natural since it’s a live, two-way conversation. Also, some SMEs prefer this traditional format over emailing questions and responses.

    Cons: Trying to schedule a phone or Zoom interview a busy SME may result in no interview at all or a rushed interview

    Email Interview

    Pros: Convenient for SMEs who prefer to respond during their downtime and perhaps want to give a more detailed, thoughtful response.

    Cons: Can sound unnatural, and there is the risk of an SME plagiarizing their responses from other sources. 

    So, what’s the best way? It varies by situation. In most cases, if time is an issue, SMEs are likely to choose an email interview, where all they have to do is respond to the questions in a timely manner.

    If time is not an issue, a phone or Zoom interview may be feasible. Keep in mind that most SMEs prefer to see the interview questions you’ll ask beforehand so they can prepare (because they can get nervous, too!).

    During the Interview 

    The good thing about SME interviews is that the more prepared you are, the easier the interview will flow for both you and the SME. This means researching your topic and the SME’s role, and then deciding which questions make the most sense to ask. 

    Let’s say you’re interviewing a surgeon who performs heart valve repair in children. During the interview, you may ask them:

    • What is your philosophy on caring for children who need a heart valve repair?
    • What are the challenges of living with [insert condition here]?
    • How would you explain [insert condition here] to someone with little to no medical knowledge?
    • What does life typically look like after heart valve repair?
    • Is there anything crucial about heart valve repair that our readers should know about?

    When it comes to SME interviews, sticking with questions related to the 5 Ws (Who, What, Where, When, and Why) and 1 H (How) can help you explore a topic effectively while leaving room for follow-up questions, if needed.  

    For phone or Zoom SME interviews, keep the following in mind: 

    • Have a recorder handy. But before you start recording the interview, ask the SME for permission to record “to get the facts straight” (I’ve never had anyone tell me no).
    • If the SME goes on a tangent, redirect them by repeating the question. Or, if you can, summarize what they said and ask them to verify your summary.
    • During the actual interview, be curious and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification, especially if the SME is using medical jargon that a lay audience would not understand. 

    After the Interview 

    If time allows, you can ask the SME, “Do you have anything else you would like to add?”

    Out of courtesy, you can let them know what to expect, such as “Once this piece is published, I can send you a copy, if you’d like.” 

    Depending on your client’s policy, SMEs may or may not be required to review their quotes before publication. In any case, do your best to transcribe the interview correctly and clarify any confusing quotes with the SME before sending your draft to the client. 

    You can also ask the SME, “Is it OK for me to contact you in the future if another SME need arises?” Most likely, they will welcome the possibility, thereby allowing you to expand your SME network. 

    Have you ever conducted an SME interview? How did it go? Tell us about it on our social media channels!

    Kara-Marie Hall BSN RN

    Kara-Marie Hall is a healthcare writer and registered nurse who writes B2B & B2C copy for various niches, including pharma, digital health, consumer health, and healthcare economics. She also specializes in content targeted to clinicians, including nurses. Kara-Marie is a member of the Association of Healthcare Journalists (AHCJ) and enjoys collaborating with others to improve the healthcare experience for all.