Peer Communication

Interviewing SMEs: Getting the Genuine Article 

by Jessie Hanson 

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) hold the keys to the kingdom of technical writing. As tech writers, we know our craft, but we do not always (or frequently!) have in-depth knowledge of what we need to write about. This is where SMEs become our greatest adversaries and our closest allies.

SMEs know what they’re talking about. ( They know who to talk to.  They know how to talk about it (Leahy, p3-4). Although they may not choose to occupy an overt leadership role, they usually have years of tenure and experience (, which speaks to the fact that they are exceptionally smart and capable. SMEs can also be busy, overworked, and disinterested in your project. It’s easy to begin to see SMEs as intimidating, if not outright frightening, for a lowly tech writer to approach and interview. and yet you can’t proceed without their help. One must remember that SMEs are not automatons, but merely humans. And, being human, they love to talk about themselves and their achievements, if they trust their listener.

The best interviews come from someone who loves what they do and is impressed by what they’ve done (Pachtel, 7:19). SMEs fit this profile perfectly.  Therefore, as tech writers, our job is to coax the SME to geek out on their favorite topic, and then guide the conversation in the direction most useful to us. (Leahy, p2) And how shall we coax forth this outpouring from our SMEs? By being genuine.

The importance of being earnest cannot be overstated. (Forbes, p2) Be genuinely interested. Be genuinely curious. Be genuinely committed to the adventure of learning something new.  Pay attention and listen to what your SME is saying (Forbes, p3) (“Friends,” p2). SMEs are a rich opportunity to learn about things you never knew you didn’t know. Embrace the opportunity!

In comedy there are two kind of laughs: laughs from telling a joke, and laughs from making a connection with the audience. The latter is far more powerful. Del Close, a founding father of improv comedy, says in Truth in Comedy, “The truth is funny” (Close, p15). I would argue that that could be restated as “truthfully connecting with people yields a positive reaction.” The best interviewers (the likes of Studs Terkel or Marc Pachter) are those who make a genuine  or truthful connection with their subjects. Roger Ebert said that Terkel was a brilliant interviewer because he was “not an academic or a cross-examiner” (Ebert, 2008) He was the guy who honestly wanted to know your thoughts. Marc Pachter says the key to a revealing interview is to “get the subject to say what they wanted to say,” by “asking the questions they’ve been waiting their whole lives to be asked.” (Pachtel, 14:19) It’s a stretch to say that an SME has been waiting her whole life to be asked how the laser inside a robot works. But if she’s invested the years of work and brainpower into knowing how it works, you can bet that it’s a favorite topic of hers and she’s going to be eager to share its intricacies with an ingenuous learner.

Terkel and Pachtel did personal interviews about their subjects’ lives. Del Close was a comedian. None of them were technical writers or dealt with technical topics. However, the principles of human communication remain the same. SMEs are real, live humans, and so are tech writers. We all try to empathize, relate, share, collaborate with each other. In the struggle to produce tight, accurate technical writing from the SME’s knowledge base, we must not forget that being human together is the only way to work together.



Close, Del. Charna Halpern. Kim Johnson. (1994). Truth in Comedy. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether Publishing, Ltd.


“Characteristics of a Subject Matter Expert.” Retrieved from


Dinsmore, Scott. (2013, April 25)  “The 7 Pillars of Connecting with Absolutely Anyone.” Retrieved from


R Ebert. (2008, May 24). How Studs Helps Me Lead My Life. Retrieved from


“How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Retrieved March 9, 2016 from


Leahy, Bart. (2013, April 20). Playing Nicely With Subject Matter Experts. Retrieved from


M Pachtel. (2009, December) “The Art of the Interview.” Retrieved from