By Mark Strowbridge
As a technical writer, you know you can write well. You can turn a muddled heap of jargon and bloated description into a lean and clean procedural process. Flow charts go where you tell them. What you didn’t learn in school, though, is interviewing.
Interviewing is an essential tool for technical writers. The information you get from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be the foundation for most, if not all, of your documents. As a writer, you will frequently be called upon to interview SMEs.
Conducting an interview isn’t hard; it just needs to be done right. In a simple way, interviews start out with three basic aspects: background research, a list of essential questions, and organization. As an interviewer, you need to be able to ask the right questions to get the information you need in a structured way.
With this in mind, the next time you have to interview a SME, here are three best practices outside of the basics for running a great interview.
Best Practice #1: Convey Professionalism and Respect
As an interviewer, you belong there. Your SME’s expertise is a resource to be used, so you won’t apologize for ″bothering″ them. However, with that said, part of being professional is giving your SME as much lead-up time before the interview as you can and showing up organized and ready. SMEs are busy people, so you can’t waste their time. If you don’t know the person, shake hands when you introduce yourself, and say the SME’s name clearly. It isn’t difficult to make a good impression:
″Hello, Jens. My name is Herb Pickles. Thanks for meeting me! I’m here to interview you about the process to upload human memories to the cloud. I know you are the best person in the company to talk to on this subject. We shouldn’t need more than an hour.″
In this example, the interviewer establishes the parameters of the interview, demonstrates confidence, clearly states his intentions for the meeting, and shows his respect for the SME’s knowledge. At the end of the interview, you should offer to send the SME a draft of your document for them to review. Doing so will impress upon them that you are a stickler for accuracy and quality, which only goes to show your thoroughness, professionalism, and respect for the SME’s reputation.
Best Practice #2: Ask the Right Kinds of Questions
Remember, the reason you are interviewing this person is because they are the expert. You’re there to tap into their experience, which you will use to make your documentation accurate and usable. The best way to tap into that expertise is through open-ended questions, or the how, why, and what questions. Open-ended questions encourage the SME to go into detail about processes, obstacles encountered, and solutions discovered and implemented. As an interviewer, you want the SME to do most of the talking. You’re there to guide the discussion. Asking, ″How does your microscope solve core problems in your field? ″ will elicit significantly more information than a closed-ended question like ″Is your microscope revolutionary? ″ To the close-ended question, the obvious response is, ″Yeah, it is. ″
Best Practice #3: Mirror Your Subject’s Personality
Good interviewers mirror the personalities of the people they are interviewing. If the SME is all-business, then adjust your interview approach to a structured and direct one. If the SME is casual and open, then run a conversational-style interview. In retail, good salespeople mirror personalities all the time: they gauge a customer’s personality and body language the moment they walk in the door, and then they adjust their approach from there. You need to do the same. Personality mirroring will help you reduce the possibility for clashes, and will allow you to connect with your subject. You can help yourself out if you get a sense of your SME’s personality before you get into the interview. Pop onto their LinkedIn page, Twitter feed, or online company profile. Read the language they use. If the SME is someone in your office, talk to people who previously worked with them and get an understanding of the kind of person they are. Your goal in mirroring the personality of your SME in the interview is to put both you and your SME at ease.
Although there are many ways to conduct an interview, integrating some best practices into your interviews will ensure you get all the information you need from you SMEs. Being professional, asking the right questions, and connecting to you subject will elicit better information. With better information, of course, comes better documents for your readers.
Mark Strowbridge is a writer in Calgary. He is a STC Alberta member and volunteer.