How to Make Your Experts More Marketable
Internal experts are some of a brand’s biggest assets. Referred to by marketers as subject matter experts (SMEs), these professionals are armed with a wealth of knowledge that your audience might find fascinating, if only SMEs knew how to package their knowledge in a relatable way.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be a paradox; that’s where your content writers come in. Marketers are often called upon to interview SMEs and turn their expertise into good content—admittedly, that’s a little easier said than done.
To find some instruction on marketing a brand’s experts, I spoke with Chris Gillespie, a writer in Contently’s network who often interviews SMEs.
How do you go about getting the information you need from SMEs?
The trick for me is to edit heavily. These people are not thinking about how to write something, they’re talking however they normally talk. They get so conceptual. They’re so deep in the weeds with their particular field.
I have to constantly ask, “Can you give me an example of that?” or, “Can you give me a time when that happened?” And unfortunately, sometimes you have to ask that three or four times, because they’ll start to get specific, but then they’ll go back to a very conceptual place and start philosophizing about it.
You have to keep drawing it back to specifics, because those details are absolutely key to making the article readable, especially to a non-expert audience.
You want it to be a story.
Right. Earlier in my writing career, I expected people to give me whatever they had, and then I would go turn it into magic. But I would struggle trying to put together the pieces [of a story] from these notes that are full of holes, and don’t really make a lot of sense.
So how did you make sense of them?
If you can get [SMEs and executives] to do work at the outset, the better job you’re going to do. [Have them] do a stream of consciousness about everything they’re thinking, so that by the time you guys meet up, they already have a V1. They’ve gotten to think it through, and they’ve decided what they’re most excited about. I know that can be difficult, because they’re hiring a writer, so they expect you to work magic and they don’t want to have to do any work.
They always have an idea of what their voice and tone are, and they have no ability to communicate it, because they don’t write a lot. That’s tough for even a writer to say, “This is what the tone should be.” But they know it when they see it.
It can be confusing and time-consuming to interview them and then write something up, and then send it to them. They might say, “No, no. The tone is way off,” when they could have directed you in the beginning, but they didn’t know what to say.
Have them go read things in any major publication and give you articles they want to mimic.
Nice, I wouldn’t have thought of that. Have you ever had any pushback asking them to write something? And if so, how do you handle that?
Every now and then they definitely come in feeling a little flustered, because they haven’t been prepared for what the process is going to be like. They think they’re going to give me a couple of bullet points and I’ll go do everything, which I can do, but it may not end up being exactly what they want.
So what I’m looking for at the outset is some kind of an upfront contract. I want to educate them on how the process should go, because you want them to know why you’re pushing them. And the more they can give me, the more work they can do, the more it’s going to be in their tone and their voice, and exactly what they want. Right?
Sometimes it’s very hard for them to buy into that when they’re supposed to do an interview, but I always at least try. And then the up-front contract says that you give me a list of the articles that you want to mimic. If I produce something that is similar to these articles, you’re willing to be satisfied with it.
By doing that upfront verbal contract, by getting them to agree to it, they’ve locked themselves in to liking the piece you’ve created. If you defer too much to them and say, “No, no. Whatever you want, that’s fine. I’ll take these three bullet points and I’ll do what I can,” you end up arguing.
Have you ever asked for stream-of-consciousness but none of it made sense or really worked? What’s that like?
This makes me think of the first Jurassic Park. When they extract DNA from the dinosaurs to create more, it’s full of holes. That’s what it’s like when executives send you over this manifesto, where they say, “This is the next article that’s going to redefine our business,” and it’s going in all sorts of different directions, and it makes no sense.
In Jurassic Park, the way they made it all work was by plugging in the gaps with frog DNA. I get these documents of writing full of gaps, and I tell myself, “I’ll plug in these pieces.” If they’re not willing to do the work to make it more refined, then it’s going to end up being half something they want and half something I want. I actually really enjoy that process if they’re willing to give me free rein.
I write often about this idea that it requires time working and living in an industry before you can write well about it. I know a lot of authors will give the sense that they can write a wide variety of things, everything from dog walking to SEO to manufacturing equipment, but you really have to live in an industry before you can fill in the dinosaur DNA with frog DNA. You have to know what other people in the industry are thinking, so you know what’s already been covered.
And then you have some of your own frog DNA, so to speak, to put in there.
Yes, it comes with exposure. Part of that frog DNA is, if you’re writing about software, you may know that making fun of Instagram influencers is fair game. Everyone in the industry thinks it’s funny.
— Jurassic World (@JurassicWorld) April 18, 2018
Have you ever talked with somebody about an article and then found that they’ve given you enough to write more than one piece? What do you do with that?
It’s usually the opposite, but sometimes yes. I did a piece recently for a client that was about how some companies are using data to prevent environmental destruction. The guy that I interviewed is the CEO of a company called Recycling Technologies.
Nobody knows what’s happens to plastics after they’re recycled and that’s the problem they’re solving. We think things get recycled, but they often get shipped to China and to India—that’s what all the recycling companies do. They sell it to somebody overseas, and then overseas they just dump it in a river. So nobody is tracking it, nobody has any data. This guy’s team invented a machine that turns plastic back into oil, that you can sell back to chemical companies. So instead of dumping it, people want to turn it into oil and sell it.
He closed the loop. It was a fascinating story, and he talked for 45 minutes straight and didn’t stop, and everything was usable almost in the form that he gave it to me.
I could have done multiple stories, and I would love to write about him again, but the piece had to be 2,000 words long. I thought that was short for the amount of stuff that he shared, and I ended the interview thinking, “God, you can’t wish for anything better than that.” He said some really hard-hitting stuff.
More often than not, what I get is executives who think they have multiple pieces, and it’s really only one. It’s so fluffy and light on information. The thought process goes like this: they come across an idea, and they think, “Oh, we should work this into an article and that would be really useful.”And then they pad for two more bullet points and then send it in. They say, “Oh, this could be a three piece.” And really, there’s one core idea, and that’s all about all they have to work with.
Do you have any tricks for getting different information?
I found the best way to start a conversation if you want to get a lot out of people, is ask, “What do you love about your job?” I do a lot of case studies for clients, and I’ll listen to the interviews that customer marketing teams usually do, and they start off with, “So, it looks like your company had 42 percent better email delivery because of our software. Can you tell us about that?” That’s not a very interesting way to start.
Whereas if you start out with, “What do you love about your job,” they’ll get to that point, but that will be the conclusion. You’ll have a whole bunch of emotional stuff wrapped up in it. Very, very interesting for readers.
What do you do if the conversation is starting to feel really stuck?
Something I do, which I took from sales, is “pattern interrupt.” [SMEs and executives] come expecting to talk strictly about the technology or about the product. That’s where they’re very theoretical. If you can pattern interrupt and ask a very personal question, or if they mention something personal, then dive into that for a little bit. The interruption humanizes everything, and the conversation stops being about one software having x impact on so and so company’s revenue, and it starts being about a person who the software helps in their career.
Where else do you find you run into issues in these interviews?
Things get tripped up if you have a PR person on the line. Even if you don’t say anything, it ruins almost everything.
They automatically start filtering themselves. I’m not trying to catch them saying something damning that will then go into print. But old-school companies seem to feel that way, and anytime someone who’s from PR wants to listen in, their presence makes people start filtering themselves and ruins it.
I would never print anything the brand didn’t want. I’ll say, “Hey, I’m not a journalist, I’m a content marketer, I’m doing this for both of us.” It’s about clarity. To do a good job, ask a client, “What do you want out of this?” They might say, “Our hope is that we get 2,000 shares on Medium,” and your reaction can be, “To get there, here are the five things that I need.”
So it’s more of a give and take instead of trying to mold exactly what they need.
If all they give you is incomplete dinosaur DNA, and you fill it with too much frog DNA, then the content turns into a velociraptor. No one wants that.