How to Handle Challenging Interviews

Got a grumpy subject-matter expert? Or an interviewee who won’t stay on topic? Learn to overcome common interview challenges and get solid source material for your writing assignment.

Finally! After countless attempts to synchronize schedules and jump through time zone hoops, you’ve secured time to speak with a subject-matter expert (SME). To prepare, you:

  • Studied the topic and the speaker. 
  • Developed a robust list of questions. 
  • Reviewed Dragonfly’s field guide on interviewing
  • Tested your technology. 
  • Dressed the part. 

You’re ready for the perfect interview. But the SME isn’t. 

Sometimes you need to dig deep to find gems for your story. Use these strategies to overcome common challenges during SME interviews. 

The challenge: The SME sticks to the pitch

WHEN the SME refuses to stray from the marketing script and answers all your questions with used-up sound bites or slogans … 

Ask them to share a real story or experience to demonstrate the point. Encourage them to recount lessons learned from their full work history, not just their current role. Ask for success stories, but don’t discount failures or near-misses. Learning what’s at risk could be powerful. 

The challenge: The SME is afraid to talk

WHEN an SME hesitates to share information because of legal or confidentiality concerns …

Clarify what information can and cannot be shared publicly, and assure them sensitive details will be omitted or anonymized. Share examples where you’ve “masked” company names or identifying details. And explain that writers sometimes need background information or context that won’t be incorporated into a final piece. 

Describe the review and approval process for your organization and how it’s documented. Most organizations won’t publish work without written SME approval, and possibly legal, risk, and compliance reviews.

The challenge: The SME is too technical 

WHEN an SME uses excessive jargon or technical language … 

Remind the SME who the intended audience is, and call out terms your readers may find confusing. Ask the SME to rephrase complex concepts in simpler words or to provide examples or analogies from outside the industry.  

Paraphrase or summarize what you’ve heard during the interview in plain language to confirm you’ve captured the points accurately. Explain that your job is to “clear up” information, not “dumb it down.”

And if you must, blame the robots! Search engines are still an important audience for online writing, so your article needs to include terms and phrases that people type into search bars. You want the content to be found, read, and understood — not just written.

The challenge: The SME speaks more fluently in another language 

WHEN the SME is speaking in their non-dominant language …

Go slowly. You may need to schedule additional interview time to cover all the material. 

Ask for permission to record the interview so you can review the conversation later. If the meeting is virtual, ask the speaker to turn on their camera so you can pick up on non-verbal cues.

Confirm the topic and key terms at the top of the interview, so you hear the SME say keywords and phrases. That makes them easier to pick up throughout the conversation. If a phrase is unclear, ask the speaker to repeat or define it.   

Ask the SME whether they have slides or presentations on the topic that you can use as background. Having a visual reference on the material can aid understanding. 

If your timeline allows (and it’s not a journalistic assignment), ask the SME if they’d be willing to review your notes, a summary of the conversation, or an outline after the interview to confirm key details before you write the story.

The challenge: The SME goes on tangents 

WHEN an SME takes you on a long, rambling tangent …

Politely steer them back to the topic by restating the original question, summarizing their point, or asking a relevant follow-up question. Use the clock as an excuse to interrupt or redirect the conversation. 

If you know an SME tends to be chatty, state your goals and the timeline for the meeting at the start. Give the interview and your time together some urgency. Explain how their insight will be used, by whom, and the deadlines you’re working toward. 

The challenge: The SME doesn’t share enough information

WHEN an SME only gives you yes or no answers …

Then it’s okay to stray from the agenda. Spend a few minutes on questions that build rapport and put the interviewee at ease. Ask easy or foundational questions before you dive into sensitive or heavy topics. 

Ask the same questions in multiple ways. Use follow-up questions, even if the answer seems obvious. Use ye olde 5Ws — who, what, when, where, why — if you get stuck. 

Let the SME take the lead, if you can. Find out what key points or topics they believe the interview should cover, and then dig into those first to get them warmed up. When you run out of questions or tactics, ask the SME what you missed. They’re the experts, after all. What should you have asked or discussed that hasn’t come up yet?     

The challenge: The SME doesn’t have time for you 

WHEN an SME rushes the interview …

Let them know you respect their time and how you plan to use it wisely. Focus the interview on details you can only get from the SME and fill in the blanks with research or supporting interviews. Send questions and project details in advance so the SME understands your goals and can prepare when it’s convenient for them.

For more tips on interviewing SMEs, read Emily Primeaux’s story about high-profile interviews that went well — even when they didn’t go according to plan.

A frustrated woman sits at her computer conducting an interview.


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