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How to Interview Subject Matter Experts for Thought Leadership Content: 6 Best Practices

How to Interview Subject Matter Experts for Thought Leadership Content: 6 Best Practices

Here's the thing – not every writer knows how to do interviews. Asking the right questions, getting the conversation going, and then turning this all into something insightful takes skill. In this article, we'll lay out the main principles of interviewing and give you a checklist to help you handle even the trickiest topics.

February 27, 2024
Olesya Paskhalna

Writing content is hard – especially thought leadership content. For generic me-too articles, you can google what other people say and use ChatGPT to rephrase what you just found. But for thought leadership content, you have to sit down with a subject matter expert, interview them, and write an article based on their insights. 

But here’s the problem – not every writer knows how to interview. Leading the conversation, asking the right questions, and then transforming an unstructured, often chaotic conversation into an insightful piece of content is a skill of its own.

At Zmist & Copy, we’ve done dozens of interviews with software developers, CEOs, and CTOs on various topics, from developing complicated telecom solutions to building survival horror video games. In this article, we’ll share everything we've learned, including the main interview principles and a checklist that will help you tackle even the most difficult topics.

But before we start, why is expert content worth all the effort? 

Why write thought leadership content?

Expert content can’t be created as easily as talking with ChatGPT. To create thought leadership content that conveys persuasive thoughts, an engaging personal experience, or anything valuable, you need to put in time and effort. But why expend all that energy when now anyone can be a writer with the help of AI-powered writing tools?

The answer lies in the question: in a world flooded with copycat content and chewed-over ideas, thought leadership is the only way for a company to stand out from the crowd. It’s the hands-on expertise in your texts that makes readers see your content as something worth their time. This is something no machine can replicate.

To win the battle for your audience’s attention, you have to offer something that ChatGPT can't generate – and that’s what expert content is all about.

To include expertise in your writing, you need two things: an expert and an interview. So how do you interview an expert?

6 best practices to conduct an insightful interview 

To do a good interview, you need to master the art of conversation, but with a clear objective in mind. It's not just about registering what your interviewees are saying, but using their input in your articles to help out your readers.

Here are six main principles of interviewing an expert on any topic. 

1. Mind who you’re talking to 

What you're going to write depends a lot on who you are interviewing. Seems obvious. But most writers don't take the expert's personality into account. Take software development case studies, for example.

Many writers who work in the software development industry dedicate every case study they write to technical challenges. This seems reasonable. After all, it's software developers they're working with. But although tech challenges are a great way to showcase the expertise of a software development company, that’s not the only way to write a case study for a given company. For instance, if a company in question claims they help businesses build successful products, then your case study needs to showcase that, shifting the focus from the tech challenges. 

To ensure your case study effectively communicates your message, consider who you're interviewing. While a development team can detail what they've delivered, a client can offer a unique perspective on the outcome. Marketers often refer to these as 'client success stories'. Very often, adopting the client's viewpoint is necessary to convey how you're contributing to their product's success.

As an illustration, let's consider a case study we wrote for Modeso, a Swiss software engineering company. This case study highlights the development of a successful Laboratory Information Management System.

To create this case study, we conducted an interview with Modeso's client. As a non-technical CEO, he didn't delve into the technical challenges, but what he shared provided precisely the narrative we needed to convey success – a six-year journey culminating in a product now used by manufacturing companies throughout Europe. This story precisely conveyed the message we aimed to deliver. 

2. Hold a conversation, not a Q&A

Writers often think that an interview is about getting answers to predetermined questions. It is not. While you can prepare questions related to the topic to ensure you cover all the necessary details, you can't anticipate the exact questions you'll ask beforehand. If you could, you could simply send a list of questions and be done with it. Instead, the main message of an article emerges during the conversation, prompting your questions to become more specific as you interview an expert.

For example, any case study interview can be boiled down to three main questions: 

  • What was the challenge? 
  • What was the solution? 
  • What were the results? 

If you ask a software developer to answer them, their answers will likely be as follows: 

  • The challenge was to build software.
  • The solution we offered was software. 
  • The result we achieved was high-quality software. 

You got your answers! But you can’t write a case study based on them.

You need to come up with other questions, more specific ones, and this is where things start to get tricky. For instance, say you ask about the technical challenges of a project but the developer says there weren’t any special tech problems. Then what should you write about? The interview goal is to discover it. 

For example, we work with UpLab, a software development company. The positioning we've outlined for them can be encapsulated in a single tagline: "Think big, start small." This means they provide a software development team for clients to build and improve their products throughout their lifecycle without the need to hire in-house developers or external resources. Their case studies reflect that.

One of the stories we wrote for them features MeinBau, a budget planner app for construction projects, created by UpLab for a startup founder who wanted to test the idea's potential.

In our interview with the team, we found no major tech hurdles. What intrigued us was UpLab's journey with the client, transitioning from a basic MVP to a white-label solution for banks, all with the same team. This perfectly aligned with the company's positioning.

Our draft of the case study for UpLab

Rather than delving solely into technical complexities, our narrative emphasized UpLab's proficiency in helping startups as they develop and refine their products until they carve out their place in the market.

The takeaway? Don’t stick to prepared questions. Follow the expert.

3. Ask the questions your reader would ask

Often, writers think they need to know as much as possible about the topic they're going to do an interview on. While preparation is a must, it doesn’t mean you have to study the subject matter from A to Z. It’s the expert’s job to explain it. What’s more important is to understand your article's goal and what user pains you can solve with it.

You can define the pain points using Jobs To Be Done. Once defined, consider what information your readers would need to solve their pains. Come up with questions that address these needs, ensuring they are tailored to resonate with your audience and offer meaningful solutions to their problems.

Don't hesitate to ask experts for clarification when needed; it's natural to have questions, especially when dealing with complex topics. Of course, you can always do your own research and find answers to the things you don't understand, but an expert can explain them much better than Google. Plus, they can also share anecdotes and examples from experience, which adds depth to the explanation and makes your article more engaging.

4. Let them talk  

During the interview, the expert must take the lead, not the writer. The writer's role is to take notes and ask follow-up questions.

Notetaking helps you be an active listener, someone who concentrates on the conversation, rather than on your own agenda. If you stick to predetermined questions, you might miss out on important details.

Make sure to record your conversation (both Zoom and Google Meet allow you to do it) but also take notes. You can jot down notes by hand, use a Google doc, or create a basic article outline in Figma, Lucid, or Miro. This will help you stay organized and quickly identify any gaps in the story.

Here’s an example of our notes in Lucid which we took during our interview with Heroic, a video game trailer company.


5. Find the key message in the raw material

Every piece of content has a central message, which essentially boils down to why that piece of content exists. It can be an idea, an approach, or a process – something you need to persuade your audience of. But to convince your readers, you need strong arguments and compelling examples to vividly illustrate your point.

During the interview, identify the primary message of your future piece and gather personal anecdotes and stories to illustrate it. Your expert might not deem such stories relevant for an expert article, yet they are precisely what makes the content compelling.

And once again, don’t be afraid to ask questions! There are no dumb questions. Every question can be valuable in crafting a captivating narrative.

6. Rephrase what you just heard

The third time’s a charm so here it goes: don’t be afraid to ask again. It's a good practice to repeat what you learned from the expert’s answer in your own words. That’s how you can make sure you got it right and avoid the need to rewrite half of the draft just because you missed an important detail. 

These six principles can guide you in making your interviews insightful but how should you do the interviews? At Zmist & Copy, we use two approaches based on the article specifics: discovery and outline-based. Here’s the difference. 

Zmist & Copy approach: discovery and outline-based interviews  

There are two main ways to approach an interview – come unprepared (without a list of questions) and prepare an outline with questions. We use both approaches. To better understand it, let’s discuss our case studies.

Discovery interview: How we interviewed telecom solution engineers for an expert article 

Flyaps is one of our clients. It's a software development company that specializes in building solutions for telecom. To showcase their specialized expertise, we needed to write an article tailored to a niche audience – decision-makers in the telecom industry – that offers solutions to telecom's specific challenges.

While writing case studies for Flyaps, we discovered that there was a common problem in every telecom project – poorly built and extremely complex interfaces. That’s when we got the idea to write an article about the high cost of low-quality telecom interfaces. We pitched this idea to our client and they agreed instantly.  

The thing about niche expertise content is that it works great for attracting a narrow audience. But this type of content is extremely difficult to write – particularly because there isn't much you can research online. So we decided to conduct an interview with Flyaps' developers and turn it into an insightful article on how to fix bad UX in telecom. Here is some context.

In the telecom industry, subpar interfaces are a common issue. They not only slow users down but also increase the likelihood of errors. Only look at this:

Designed to work with Big Data, telecom solutions often need to fit numerous details on one screen which demands specific attention to UX. Image source

Statistics pose an additional challenge in telecom applications. Simple and intuitive, they need to convey only the essential data with the possibility to quickly access more details. Image source.

Custom dashboards need to be responsive and facilitate data comparison which can be made possible through splitting screens. Image source

In the article, we analyzed the problems that telecom users face, and showed how they can be solved. Our goal was not just to write about bad UX in telecom but to describe the unique Flyaps' approach to addressing this challenge.

Through our exploration of Flyaps' telecom projects, we found that they take a step-by-step approach, revamping legacy systems gradually, module by module, to maintain a consistent look and feel. During our interview, we delved into Flyaps' expertise and its application in their projects, showcasing their ability to transform outdated interfaces into modern user-friendly products.

As a result, we received everything for a thoughtful expert article: 

  • A problem relevant to the target audience  
  • Company's experience that resonates with this audience
  • Solutions to the reader’s problems 
  • Specific experience of our interviewees that can be useful to our readers.

To get this information, we focused on questions that highlight the distinctive abilities of our experts and demonstrate the real-life outcomes achieved when their skills are put into practice.

There is no versatile list of questions for an interview with an expert. Everything depends on what you want to write about. But here’re some possible questions to give you an idea: 

  • What is the problem you solve by doing X? 
  • What are the most challenging aspects of doing X? What makes it hard? 
  • Do you have any personal tricks or approaches to overcome these challenges based on your experience? 
  • What precise examples can you give to illustrate your approach?
  • What results have you achieved at the end and how do they work for you or your clients?
  • What advice can you give to those who face the same challenges? 

Outline-based interview: Introducing a video game development brand  

Discovery calls can be extremely useful to understand a niche problem but they don’t work when you need to convey a specific predefined message. In this case, you need to conduct a structured interview with a group of experts. Here is one example.

Room 8 Group is something like Meta for Facebook – it's a new brand that represents four different game development companies. When they launched this brand, the marketing team at Room 8 Group asked us to create a content strategy to get the word out. We've compiled a list of perceptions, outlining the key information that potential clients should know about Room 8 Group.

One of the messages we had to convey was that Room 8 Group is a global company with offices in seven countries. To communicate this, we agreed to write an article about how multiple locations benefit their clients.

We knew that it could be difficult for the experts to grasp the structure of this article and what exact information we need from them. That's why we created an outline in Google Docs and Figma and scheduled a call with Room 8 Group team to discuss it. We needed to agree on this outline and gather some additional details for the article. 

To streamline the meeting and discuss our vision for the article, we showed this Figma outline to the team at Room 8 Group. 

We also prepared a list of questions: 

  1. What are the challenges of operating multiple locations? 
  2. How is communication working between teams?  
  3. How do you manage the teams across locations?
  4. What are the main benefits of having international offices? 
  5. Can you share a story behind launching your offices?
  6. How do your employees combine remote work and work from office? What are the advantages of each approach? 

To create an outline with predefined questions, you can use this checklist as a starting point: 

  • Write a perception that the readers should have about your brand after reading your article (for instance, the perception we wanted to build is that Room 8 Group is an international game development company with studios in seven countries).
  • Define a thesis statement – the main message of the article (for example: "The gaming industry is getting more global and more accessible, and as representatives of this industry, we want to live up to it.")
  • Outline the future article, including the sections and main ideas you want to convey in each of these sections. 
  • Write a list of questions to the experts based on the outline. 

As you can see, the interviewing approaches can be different. Everything depends on the type of content you are going to write. For niche topics, the best strategy is to make a discovery call, and for articles with a clear angle and message, it’s better to prepare an outline and a list of questions.

Bottom line

You don't need innate talent for interviewing; it's a skill that can be learned. The main goal of any interview is to get the answers your readers need. Your expert has these answers. Don't rely on predetermined questions. Build a dialogue and see where it takes you instead. 

If you wish to create thoughtful leadership content, schedule an interview with an expert. Or drop us a project request, and we will do it for you.   

February 27, 2024
Olesya Paskhalna