The Art of Interviewing SMEs and Tech Comm Celebrities

This session is part of the Project Management, Leadership, and Career Development (PM) track of the Summit. The presenter of this session, Nicky Bleiel, has over 20 years of technical communication experience, is Past President of STC, and served as an STC Director-At-Large for five years. She is also a past president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of STC and has won multiple STC competition awards. In addition to these leadership positions, she has served as a judge for various STC competitions, and published and reviewed for STC Summit and STC’s journal, Technical Communication.

For today’s presentation, Ms. Bleiel presented on the key considerations for interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs) and well-known technical communicators. Before conducting your interview, make sure you are well-prepared with questions prepared and preliminary research completed. Be sure to review all product/subject-related information, diagrams and drawings, and related documentation. Do you have a good idea of the tools and technologies this SME uses in their work environment?

When starting the interview, be sure to cover the Five Ws:

• Who would use this feature?

• Why should they use this feature?

• When would users use this feature?

• When shouldn’t they use it?

• What are the prerequisites?

During the interview, consider “WWUA”, or, what would users ask? Step into the intended audience’s shoes to get a good feel for the needed documentation for that user’s experience. In addition, a good interview should include, work to respect the interviewee and their time by sticking to a schedule, remain attentive, adjust yourself to their style of communication, and don’t be afraid to encourage diagramming and whiteboarding ideas during your session.

In an atypical interview environment where the user is not present in person or by phone or video call, asynchronous messaging platforms like Slack, GitHub, and email can be useful. Because you likely will have ample time before the interview to carefully prepare questions, keep these considerations in mind:

• Write succinct, clear questions

• Avoid asking questions that have already been answered elsewhere

• Include links to related issues/information

• Always ask who has additional information or where additional information can be found

When interviewing technical communication “celebrities” or luminaries, additional considerations are needed. Be sure to have read their books, blogs, articles, or social media, as well as listen to their podcasts or featured appearances. And while easy to forget about or overlook, send your interviewee a copy of the interview. This will not only ensure you’ve captured their responses accurately, but, will also provide them with a record of responses they can draw on for future interview scenarios.

Ms. Bleiel ended her talk by providing additional resources for finding your footing during the SME interview process. Here are a few of those resources:

Nuts and Bolts: Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

The Value of Recording Conversations with SMEs

Technical Writing—Cardinal Rule of Interviewing a Subject Matter Expert (SME) For a Document

– Shayla Corprew