Tips to Interview The Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

“I’m too busy! Let’s postpone the interview!” the SME said

Luca Vettor
3 min readSep 11, 2022
Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

If you are a technical writer, you have heard something like that thousands of times, and this is not the best answer you would like to receive!

Following The Guide To Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) (non-affiliate link) by Michele B. Medved, let’s closely look at the interaction between technical writers and SMEs and try to get some tips to make that relationship as lovely as possible.

The goal is social

In her book, Michele B. Medved highlights something crucial and obvious (once you are aware of it, due to the curse of knowledge):

The transfer of knowledge has always been a social activity.

When people meet and speak, some typical dynamics happen. The speakers may either:

  1. Exhibit their knowledge for the mere sake of self-love. Or,
  2. Aim to communicate and take care of the listeners.

On the other hand, the listeners may either:

  1. Just wait for the moment to be the speaker, in turn. Or,
  2. Want to learn from speakers.

The same happens when interviewing an SME. Like any other social interaction, technical writers and SMEs must take care of the other’s aim for being in the interview: communication for the SMEs and learning for the technical writers.

Thus, courtesy and open-mindedness are the critical ingredients for a successful interview with SMEs. Is all this enough? No, but it is necessary to emotionally ward off the SMEs’ perception of wasting time talking to a technical writer.

The tacit knowledge

The SMEs, as such, have deep knowledge of their matter that is not only based on a pure amount of notions. Following Michele B. Medved, they also own tacit knowledge:

Tacit, or unspoken, knowledge is based on observation and experience.

That means that the SMEs partially don’t know what they know, but they do, thanks to their experience. Yet, this inner knowledge is often the most precious for a successful interview because it is what most learners need:

Your challenge is to elicit this knowledge from SMEs so that novices receive this information, and the knowledge stays in the organization.

Easy to say, hard to do! We will see some tips to mitigate this challenge, but not before highlighting another obstacle to master during the interview:

SMEs tend to tell you everything they know. This is often not the same as the learner needs to know.

The tendency of SMEs to exhibit, instead of inform, firmly depends on people’s personalities. Hence, it is on the technical writers’ side to adopt the best psychological strategy to soothe the SMEs’ egos and get as much valuable knowledge from them as possible.


The first tip first is to declare and agree on the goal of the interview:

Effective interviewers define goals and clear outcomes for their interview.

The interview may be highly inefficient without an explicit goal: the North Star for the technical writers and the SMEs.

Second tip: to mitigate the psychological biases by giving the interview a structure regarding its aims. FRED helps on that:

FRED: Focused, Relevant, Engaging, and Deep.

In FRED, each adjective is a memo about which criteria to adopt to decide how to build the interview so that every part of it is: focused (on the knowledge to unveil), relevant (for the learner), engaging (both for SMEs and learners), and deep (enough to make the learner able to understand).

Third tip (the most content-related): use templates to control the interview’s content and outcome.

Templates make it easy to organize the results of all your content collection using specific topics of themes.

Every time a template is available, both technical writers and SMEs have the opportunity to spend all their effort just on specific knowledge because the structure for delivering that knowledge is pre-defined.


Based on my experience as a technical writer, Michele B. Medved got the point with her book.

Interviewing SMEs is social and psychological even before being something technical: that is the most valuable message she gives.

Take care!

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Luca Vettor

My 24 years in the IT industry and physics degree flow into my mission: simplify what appears complex.