[Show/Hide Right Column]

Interviewing the Subject Matter Expert

Daniel Hart by Daniel Hart
When you interview the subject matter expert, you witness that most vulnerable act—thought sorted on the fly. For a productive and humane exchange, offer a sympathetic ear attuned to clarity and rapport.

Attend, and Listen

Acoustic space is in a way a vast interior in the center of which the listener finds himself together with his interlocutors. The oral-aural individual thus does not find himself simply situated somewhere in neutral, visual-tactile, Copernican space. Rather, he finds himself in a vast kind of interiority. (Walter J. Ong, S.J., The Presence of the Word [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967], 164)

The subject matter expert—indeed, any oral communicator—manages Walter J. Ong’s “vast … interiority,” a resource even more unwieldy than the written word. The successful interviewer is both chief prompter and sympathetic ear. Regardless of your foreknowledge, show deference. Listen to learn, mentor shared understanding.

Establish Rapport

"I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."
(Alan Greenspan quoted by Daniel Kadlec. “Summing Up Greenspan,” Time, Friday, December 15, 2000. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,91998,00.html )

The subject matter expert—including the writer—knows more than you do, or at least knows what you would. For example, the software developer famously commands intimidating esoterica that tongue-tie even the confident layperson.

Be well researched and therefore, unafraid. Understand the lingua franca before you use it. Record this moment, not the one for which you fastidiously prepared. Remember your ally, the end user, who needs clear, correct, and concise prose.

Set the Pace

Take time to understand the non sequitur. Do not fear silence. Consider author Sinclair Lewis’s “test of quietness,” the unspoken understandings shared by friends. (Sinclair Lewis, Babbit [New York: Penguin Books, 1996], 209)

A deliberative pause during the interview need be no less rich. It begs reiteration (that commits the subject matter expert further) and buys time for a follow-up question based in pertinence, not panic.


Communication scholars have come to recognize that culture is a primary determinant of all communication behaviors – including listening – because one’s culture essentially serves to define who one is and how one will communicate through one’s perceptual filter. (A.D. Wolvin and C.G. Coakley, Listening [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996],125)

Our perceptual filters root stubbornly in task necessities, personal history, and corporate culture. Contest your assumptions. Welcome surprise. Corroborate for fact and fluency.

However, sincere engagement is not naïve. Let implication guide query. Brave contradiction. Elucidate the opaque and catalogue nuance, for either this document or the next.

Remember: the unasked question haunts.


Years ago, I tried to top everybody, but I don't anymore. I realized it was killing conversation. When you're always trying for a topper you aren't really listening. It ruins communication. ("Groucho Marx,” Wikipedia: The Free Encylopedia, http://www. en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Groucho Marx (accessed September 19, 2010))

OK, you are smarter than this so-called subject matter expert. (Your goldfish could beat him at marbles.) Nevertheless, want more, like an apprentice. Be insatiable.

Map from Ear to There

Finally, furnish thoughtful inquiry—not the fillip of good manners, but protocols for cooperation. Successfully map “vast … interiority” to the written word, and the reader will see what you heard.

Page last modified on Thursday, November 18, 2010 12:56:31pm EST
The content on this page is licensed under the terms of the Copyright.
Comments powered by Disqus
Corrigo: The newsletter of the STC Technical Editing SIG

Rate this article:
This article also appears in the following collections:
Category: Skills

Alert Also available as a blog...