Everyone’s talking about content marketing and thought leadershipwe’ve blogged about it quite extensively, and how your content needs to be different and useful for your readers. And to do that, it needs ideas.

Where do those ideas come from? Aside from your own inspiration and any research you commission, it comes down to your subject-matter experts, aka SMEs. They’re the product managers, strategists, analysts and consultants that live and breathe the topics you’re writing about (or commissioning an agency like us to write about).

And how do you get those ideas out of their heads and on to paper? Good old fashioned telephone interviews, usually.

Interviews are, as a result, critically important to the quality of your thought leadership. Yet we’ve found they often don’t get enough thought and preparationthey’re often booked at the last minute and, to risk a bit of cynicism, can be a bit of a political exercise, intended to make senior SMEs feel like they’re being included in the content-creation process.

After many years conducting interviews on every technology topic under the sun, we’ve refined our approach to get great results. Here are some tips.

1. Give them context

These guys do all kinds of calls and presentations, with clients, analysts, the media, internal audiences… They could take your interview in a hundred different directions if you don’t focus them down. Before the call, explain clearly what you’re trying to achieve, what kind of paper you’re trying to write and at what audience. Help them to help you.

2. Ask for written info

An hour-long chat is a great start, but why reinvent the wheel? If the consultant or product manager has talked on the same topic before, you can guarantee they’ll have a deck or doc floating around that they can send you. Even if not, maybe they can point you at some third-party write-ups that do the jobwhether it’s from a competitor or a standards body. Whatever the source, having something in writing can clarify confusion and provide extra detail, diagrams and examples that you might be able to leverage in your materials.

3. Let the conversation flow

Don’t schedule in a half-hour call with no time to prepare. Allow at least an hour. And don’t expect them to fill the whole hour with a monologue brain dumpask impulsive questions, have a conversation, repeat back technical concepts to check you’ve got the gist, and build a rapport. The best interviews are dialogues that spark ideas in everyone’s heads. And once you’re getting to the top of the hour, allow yourself five minutes to ask one final question: “is there anything we’ve not covered?” Your questions may have been insightful, but there’s often a nugget of insight that you’ve missed. This is your last chance to get it.

4. Focus on the examples

Theory and product information is all well and good, but what brings documents to life, especially in technical topics, is examples. Case studies and customer anecdotes in particular are gold dust and give you insight that you can’t get from the service description. Ask for them explicitly.

5. Ask who else you should talk to

Job titles are rarely a good indication of expertise and experience, so we always ask, at the end of the interview, who else in the organisation we should talk to to find out more. Use the shadow org chart to your advantage! While you won’t necessarily have the time to talk to everyone, it’ll give you a steer about who to include in reviews, too.

6. Talk next steps

“Hit-and-run” interviews are poor formdon’t just thank your SME for their time and hang up. Let them know what you plan to do with their information next. Reassure them that you won’t publish anything (particularly if you’re quoting them or naming clients) without their approval. Ask them to set aside some time to review in a week or two’s time. It’ll make the whole process run more smoothly.

So there you goperhaps a different style of interviewing from the Jeremy Paxmans and Piers Morgans of this world, but in these interviews we’re out to gather information, not win an argument. Let us know if you’ve got any tips to share.

Posted by John on 2 October 2013