5 Tips for Notetaking When Interviewing SMEs

When interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs), technical writers need a fast, disciplined, and organized way to jot down what they get

Luca Vettor
4 min readFeb 13


Map by the author

SMEs speak fast, and what they say is difficult. On the other hand, taking notes is crucial to get enough information to build valuable documentation.

So, year after year, I’ve collected some tips to make the process more and more effective.

That’s my recipe!

#1: Personal conventions

Notetaking is close to psychology. The way to translate concepts into words is personal, even intimate. It deals with interiorizing the world outside.

In the case of notetaking in technical writing, it’s learning on the listening, too. Again, learning is personal: each of us has a different approach to melting down the complexity of the subject matter to learn.

Nevertheless, there’s an ingredient that’s always the same for each approach to notetaking: consistency in conventions — which are personal.

For example, my conventions are:

  • Connect words with an arrow. The direction of the arrow tracks what’s the source of the relationship. The label of the arrow describes the relationship.
  • Circle the keywords.
  • Underline what needs further explanation.

That’s it.

By consistently adopting those conventions, I can visualize from my notes how complex and complete information I got from the interview.

#2: Don’t mind being linear

When speaking and explaining things, SMEs can introduce many main concepts that form the broad picture together.

Yet, the order in which they introduce concepts may be dictated by the discourse rather than respecting the logical hierarchy of the ideas themselves.

So, when detecting new main concepts, graphically isolate them in your notes. If you take notes by hand, that’s easy: find a free space on the paper and start writing there the new concept.

#3: Cluster information

I have two magic numbers to cluster information in my notes:

  • 3: when we reach three concepts, even if the SME presents them as independent, I ask whether it’s possible to connect them. Sure, the answer may be “no”; in that case, the following magic number comes into play.
  • 7: when we reach seven concepts, even if the SME presents them as independent, I invent a way to break them down into at least two clusters and discuss with the SME that clustering for the sake of documenting the subject matter. It almost always works.

Taking notes is not only recording but elaborating. And clustering is a powerful way to produce more refined information, given some primary data.

#4: Write down questions

When SMEs speak, many questions arise in my mind. Yet, I wait to interrupt the SME to ask my questions.

Instead, I quickly jot the question down and ask it when convenient. This approach has two advantages:

  • The SMEs often spontaneously answer the question after a while, so I save time by avoiding interruption.
  • Even more valuable, the list of questions represents the challenges in learning the subject matter. Sure, they are my questions, so my challenges, but I focus on asking questions as if I were the audience for which I write the documentation. Questions are my point of contact with my audience’s brain.

There’s no learning without questions, and taking notes is learning.

#5: Draw diagrams first

The king of taking notes is visualization.

The most powerful visualization I use daily is the ontology chart. Yet, the kind of diagrams is far less relevant than using some of them. Why?

  • Diagrams ensure the logical consistency of the documentation since they visualize the reasoning.
  • Diagrams highlight when there is a lack of information or incompleteness that otherwise would not have been detectable.
  • Diagrams stimulate questions because they transform concepts in drawing but preserve the same needs of consistency of the subject matter they describe.
  • Diagrams make it easier to detect mistakes.


Recording the interview is an effective way to track everything, but it takes double the time: the time of the interview plus the same time to listen to the recording. Even more: when playing back the recording, the listen-stop-write steps lead to spending much more time than the recording length. That’s not efficient.

So, real-time notetaking is the only efficient approach. Not easy, but feasible. It requires method and discipline.

Taking notes is not only recording but elaborating.

No recipe applies the same to everybody because notetaking is a fast brain activity, and technical writers, as human beings, have different brains. Then, each of us has to discover what’s the best recipe.

In this post, I shared my recipe.

What’s yours?

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Luca Vettor

Writer, technical communicator, thinking designer, husband, and, recently, father. My truth: Things are less complex when you write them down!