When I jumped to the PR and marketing side from journalism, I was often told by the PR firm who hired me, “We want you to think like a journalist.” I never said this at the time, but now I can admit: I don’t really know what that means. But I do know something about interviewing experts, which is often the basis for B2B comms writing.
When you’re writing to advocate on behalf of a third party, as PR teams often do, you must lay out the strongest possible argument in the first draft. The less back-and-forth you need, the sooner you can move on to other tasks. A call with a subject-matter expert (SME) is an opportunity to fast-track the outlining and writing process. It’s great to be able to get an expert’s specific insights upfront, rather than in the revisions.
Journalism is about asking people questions, summarizing what they tell you, and knowing enough about the subject to put those answers in context. You also need to know enough about a subject to recognize when you’re getting a lot of hot air or a ludicrous claim, which is when you push back with a follow-up question. The best journalists I’ve known are those who are unusually good at getting people to talk, and making them comfortable enough to open up. That’s why I usually start with an icebreaker and a few painless questions.
But once you’ve made your interview subject comfortable, it’s not always easy to think of new questions on the fly. Frankly, not a lot of people can improv like that intuitively, and most of us need to train ourselves to prepare to guide the conversation before it starts.
The catch is, when you do get the SME on the call – whether they’re an in-the-weeds technologist, an executive with specialized knowledge, or someone who is both – it’s sometimes difficult to figure out where to take the conversation. Let’s face it – most of us in comms don’t also have, say, engineering or operations experience. In our position, you don’t always know what you don’t know. And you want to be respectful of any expert’s time, so you need to come in prepared. Any hemming and hawing eats up time you should be using to build a stronger narrative. Preparation can also sharpen your own knowledge, which makes you more valuable as a comms pro.
An expert lives and breathes the stuff you’re talking with them about. In a relatively casual conversation, they’re likely to gloss over some points and to take others for granted. Just because they sound authoritative doesn’t mean they’re not leaving rhetorical gaps that need to be filled in later. So if you have the opportunity to prep some questions that the briefing sheet or interview parameters don’t address, grab it.
Check relevant trade publications. Look at other POVs from experts with different vantage points in the industry. Pretty much anything that’s trending will already be discussed in trades. The expert will probably agree with some and disagree with others – so make a note to ask them for their take on the specific points you’re surfacing. Look for any POVs or quotes that sound like they disagree or conflict with your client’s or company’s approach or messaging. Think beyond the POVs of competitors. In ad tech, for example – what the buy side wants isn’t necessarily sell-siders’ top preference, and vice versa. What would your expert say to set the other side of the supply chain at ease?
If you ask good questions up front, you get stronger material that goes beyond corporate bullet points. Unfortunately, sometimes you simply don’t have the benefit of knowing what will come up. But during the conversation, you can mentally flag the places where the subject gets into territory that isn’t intuitive. There are certain types of questions you can keep up your sleeve that are a bit more to the point than “What are you talking about?”
In a way, this idea ties back to the old “Show, don’t tell” principle in storytelling. Instead of saying, “This character felt sad,” you describe them doing something out of sadness. In industry bylines, too, you want to paint a picture that the reader can imagine. And you want an SME to paint that picture for you. Details like that make a byline more than just another pitch. The right questions are designed to bring out those details.
Below are examples of the kind of questions you can prep ahead of time. You can use what you already know about the angle or product, as well as the specific area of expertise your interview subject can address, to adapt them:
When you were developing this solution, which customer pain points did you have in mind? How did you decide this was the right solution?
How is this solution going to improve a business’s bottom line, or their teams’ day-to-day lives?
What have your customers told you about how this solution is working for them?
I saw a piece in [trade publication] where someone said, “[possibly controversial thing].” How would you respond to that?
What might lead a business with this problem to resist or be hesitant about using your solution?
What does implementation/adoption look like? Who are the relevant stakeholders at the business, and what do they need to do to get the most out of this solution?
Here’s a thought experiment to get the mental gears turning. Imagine you’re at a session at an industry conference. The presenter steps onto the dais and goes through their whole prepared spiel. Ideally, it’s clear and useful, and it contains concrete examples and actionable recommendations. But still, it’s prepared, it might be a bit guarded in tone, and it’s not the end of the discussion of the topic at hand.
When there’s a Q&A segment after the presentation, that’s often where the juicy stuff comes out. That’s where the in-the-weeds technical stuff comes out. And that’s where the discussion can turn more candid and nuanced. While putting together interview questions, try to preempt the questions and challenges one of your company’s own customers or prospects would want to throw at them.
When I think about going deep in interview questions, I like to think about the difference between Twitter and Reddit. Twitter is where people go to perpetuate a narrative in a very public setting. Reddit is where people go to work out problems, often more or less anonymously, in an environment where a comment’s candor is often key to its ultimate value.
Remember that any byline or report is part of a living discussion that people in a given industry are having. That’s the context you should keep in mind when working on content that requires expert insights. You’re demonstrating to the industry audience that the company is listening to the discussion. You’re showing they have something new to add. You welcome the reader to continue the conversation. As the discussion evolves over time, you might find new opportunities for them to jump in.