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How to Create Content from a Subject Matter Expert Interview (in 7 Steps)

How to Create Content from a Subject Matter Expert Interview (in 7 Steps) Blog Feature

John Becker

Editorial Content Manager, Co-host of Content Lab, 15+ Years of Writing and Teaching Experience

August 26th, 2019 min read

As a content manager, it’s your responsibility to share the knowledge, insights, opinions, and expertise of your company with your audience — typically through blog articles, but also podcasts, videos, and so on. 

You stand as a primary ambassador for your brand, guaranteeing that the content published checks all requisite boxes.

Are you answering customer questions? Are you establishing your company as a trusted resource within your industry? Does your team feel empowered to produce content?

Part of your job is organization, part of it is empowerment, part of it is coaching.

Somewhere in there, you need to be writing, too; harnessing the knowledge of busy subject matter experts and catapulting it into the world.  

The funny thing about writing is that, when done well, it hides all of the work that went into it. Remember in math class when you would lose points if you didn’t show your work? Writing is the exact opposite. 

By the time something is finished, it should be polished to a sheen that hides the seams and underpinnings.

Writing as others

One of the most challenging parts of your job will likely be ghostwriting as a team member. 

This is among the most conventional ways of creating content from a subject matter expert in your organization and, to do so, you need to consciously not sound like yourself, which is weird and liberating at the same time. 

When I need to do this, I follow these seven steps and best practices.

The instances in which you’ll have to write as a team member usually stem from two different needs: 

First, perhaps your subjects have some difficulty expressing themselves in prose. Second, your subjects are too busy, and their time would be better used in another way.   

In either case, the process and the results are largely the same. 

1. Agree on a topic and clear up logistics

Just like with an interview, ghostwriting begins with making the subject feel comfortable with the whole process.

Setting up an early meeting or phone call — or at least an email or Slack conversation — can work well to set the parameters.

The subject should know the process and trust you. Assure them that they will have final say over any content published under their name and that they can be as involved in every step of the process as they’d like.

In most cases, the subject is likely exceedingly busy and, thus, is appreciative. However, wariness is not uncommon. It is the responsibility of the writer (meaning you) to put the subject at ease before any writing begins. 

Other pre-writing logistics involve setting a time for an interview and developing a topic. For the latter, this might be a collaborative developmental process with your subject, something pulled from the editorial calendar, or a topic completely decided on by them. 

In any case, the procedure for solidifying a topic varies so widely that it won’t be covered here.

2. Write a style guide

When writing as someone else, I create a style guide. 

Ideally, you would have some of their written work to go by, maybe previous blog posts or articles. Even a few emails can suffice. 

If your subject is a company leader, perhaps you have heard them speak at meetings or other events. 

Either way, before I even write questions, I start a blank document with an outline of how the person sounds, and what their writing looks like. Here’s an example:

SME-style-guide-john-becker-impact

This helps me in two ways. First off, the process of creating it forces me to scrutinize the subject's work and articulate what makes it different from someone else’s. Second, the guide is a quick reference that I read over before drafting or while revising. 

The small details that I’ve accumulated in my guide can be used to drop in a phrase or tweak a sentence. 

3. Write an outline, and align it with your questions

When you’ve decided on a topic, write a series of questions for your subject. I say questions, but these are really more prompts. 

You want to establish a trajectory that you think the eventual article might follow, but you do not want it to feel calculated or scripted. 

Do the necessary research to establish a cursory understanding of the topic at hand, but be prepared for potential diversions.

Once I’ve reached this point, I prepare much the same way I would for an interview, only with more structure. 

After I write my questions, I then run them by the subject. However, when ghostwriting, I put the questions into an outline under headings that will become H2s in the final piece. 

For example: 

ghostwriting-sme-becker-impact

Here you can see topics, quotes, questions, and an organizational structure that represents much of the information I’m hoping to cover in the interview — and in the article. 

I keep this document open while we’re talking. If we’ve built it together, my subject might have it on her screen as well. This becomes a sort of road map that we can each check as needed.

4. Interview

I’ve written elsewhere about the skills necessary to complete great interviews. The same rules apply here, but the interview itself feels a bit looser. 

When I am interviewing for a ghostwritten piece, I feel more comfortable following tangents and asking for further explanation.

In turn, the subject feels more at ease and more invested in a process that is, inherently, collaborative.

Whereas a standard interview demands cogent, well-crafted questions, an interview for a ghostwritten piece can be more like a discussion. 

I will frequently jump in to ask for clarification or to push the discussion in a direction that feels essential.

In order to prevent biting off more than you can chew, I recommend not doing more than a 30-minute interview. Honestly, the shorter the better. A shorter interview keeps the topic manageable and minimizes tangental information.

I always record the interview and use a service (like Rev) to prepare a transcript.

5. Draft

After you’ve assembled your style guide, your transcript, and any other information you need, you should begin drafting.

My earnest advice for drafting a ghostwritten piece is this: Don’t over-plan. Don’t overthink. Let the magic happen.

Keep your subject in mind as you pursue your topic, but don’t impede the writing process with relentless analytical paralysis.

Don’t confuse writing as someone else with producing a forgery. Although you have been asked to produce something that approximates their voice, you were given this task because of your writing ability

Your facility with prose should blend with their subject matter expertise to produce a collaboration. Sprinkle in syntactical, textual, and punctuational elements that mimic the subject’s style, but remember that it is your job to help deliver their knowledge in the most effective way possible. Trust your ability.

6. Ask for feedback

It is critical that your subject have frequent opportunities for input. Once you’ve drafted and edited, share the document. Allow your subject to make suggestions and edits. 

In my experience, subjects are so glad to have the onus of article writing removed from their busy schedule that they will be tremendously appreciative of your hard work. Very rarely will you encounter a subject interested in micromanagement or trivialities.

If you have a particular section you struggled with, leave comments in Google Docs to help guide the feedback process. 

7. Take control

You have been asked to write as someone else. This means your company trusts you and your voice. It is critical that you allow your subject to provide feedback on the draft, but don’t feel the need to involve them in minutiae. 

Once you’ve had them approve the overall direction of the piece, you don’t need to contact them again to permit you to make minor changes, tweak formatting, add links, or amend a header.

Polish the piece to your company’s standards and get ready for publication. 

Taking the fright out of ghostwriting

No matter the reason, writing for someone else is a responsibility that requires both your skill and your judgment. 

If you try to internalize some of their linguistic mannerisms and convey the information you’ve garnered from your interview, the product will naturally be a fair representation of their content and style. 

Trust your instincts. 

As long as you write with your subject’s voice in your head, trust your own ability to structure, pace, and organize your article.

Then, when it comes time to finalize the piece and you get the go-ahead from your subject, slap his or her name on there. 

No one will be the wiser and you will have done a great service to your team. 

Your subject’s voice and expertise will be disseminated, and you will have taken a time-consuming task off of someone’s plate.

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