Journalists and nonfiction writers often need subject-matter experts (SMEs) to lend credibility to their content. I have interviewed experts as far ranging as principals, teachers, fire fighters, real estate agents, lenders and nurses for a variety of published pieces. The information gleaned from these experts, along with the quotes used, strengthened each piece and provided me with a wealth of information for future writing.
What is a subject matter expert?
A SME is a specialist in their field. Someone with higher degrees and/or years of experience in a particular topic that can be quoted for the piece to make the topic or a certain slant believable to the readers. Often these experts are well published, so you can also cite from their published works. SMEs can be in any field, depending on the topics you are writing about.
The search for SMEs
The trick is to find good SMEs. For instance, perhaps you are assigned an article on new DNA trends, but you know little about DNA. Research the subject as you normally would for the piece, with the focus on locating experts using the search tips listed here.
1. Check LinkedIn. Next check LinkedIn for companies who work with DNA, as well as other experts, such as professors. You must have a LinkedIn account first. Start a new account and great an engaging writer’s profile if you don’t already have one, as it will become an invaluable resources. If available and open, join a DNA LinkedIn group and ask direct questions to its members, even asking for experts to use for publication.
2. View university/college staff. Check your local institute of higher learning for DNA professors or research associates. Locate university or college staff throughout the world known for DNA work on the Internet to research potential experts.
3. Use search engines. Search online using keywords, such as “DNA experts” or “DNA researchers” or whatever the topic is. Try several searches and search engines for the most comprehensive results.
4. Post to social networking sites. Post a tweet or Facebook update seeking DNA experts to interview for possible publication. Try several posts spaced a day or so apart to get the most viewers. Also search various social networking sites using the same keywords as above. Write down any leads you get.
5. Read specialty journals. Look for journals in DNA or whatever you are researching. Read articles on your topic, decide what is relevant and write down the name, brief paragraph about the content, journal name (with edition and number) and author’s contact information.
6. Ask a librarian. Most librarians know how to find anything and everything. Just explain what you are looking for and prepare to learn. Larger libraries may have a library information telephone line or email address.
7. Search booksellers. Amazon sells all types of books from big-name publishers to self-published authors. Search their website for books on DNA. Read the content information and reviews noting author’s name. Also check author credentials and book rating. Get contact information for authors that impress you online. Do the same for other booksellers, such as Barnes & Noble.
Start a database for keeping track of these experts, noting name, affiliation, phone numbers, email, website and field of specialty. Continually add to this database as you take on new projects. This will be your indispensable resource in your search for specialists to interview or to help you understand a subject. Add searchable fields that work for you, such as availability, more specialty details, birthday or notes. Try using FileMaker or Access database software for easily searchable results.
Approach and interview
Once you have gathered several experts on your topic, prepare to contact them to ascertain the experts you want to work with. Remember, quality over quantity. Three or four experts in any field is all you really need. Here, you will be choosing the best SMEs to work with for this piece and, perhaps, others.
First, send a brief email stating your topic and where the article is to be published. After a few days with no response, try calling instead. Definitely set up a time to call and “interview” each expert after you have received a positive response to your email request.
Most experts will be honored by your request, but don’t have a lot of time. Keep all contacts with them brief, but meaningful. In other words, plan all questions ahead of time and always be prepared with a base level of knowledge on the subject. While chatting with the SME to see if they are a good fit for your needs, consider the following and aim your questions around gathering this data:
- Up-to-Date Credentials
- Present and Future Availability
- Willingness to Help
- Current Experience
- Years of Expertise
- Influence on the Subject
- Compatible Personality
The best SMEs have all or most of these criteria. Even if the SME’s personality is not entirely compatible with your own, ask yourself if you could adapt to her/his needs to get the best information possible for your article. Decide which ones would work best for you and note these preferences. SMEs are a continually renewable source, as times change and people move on or retire.
Once you have started working with a SME, cultivate their professional friendship to maintain a long-term relationship. Practice good listening and communication skills to get the most from each SME. Understand each SME’s personality. For instance, some SMEs may prefer emailed questions rather than over the phone. Others like a formal, structured approached to questions.
Be mindful of the SME’s time constraints when asking questions specific to an article. This means being organized and planning the questions ahead based on your research with room to explore interesting information that arises from the SME’s answers.
As a professional courtesy, email each expert your draft, as well as the finished piece before it goes to press for final comments and to check for accuracy. Remember, they are the specialists in their field, and it’s easy to misunderstand a topic that’s not as clear to you. This symbolizes respect for their expertise.
Show your appreciation by sending the SME thank you or holiday cards. Ask the SME about other projects or family to get to know her/him better. Let the SME know you are grateful for their help. Check in with her/him often to see how they are doing and to update your data.
After all, when you use a SME as a reference or directly quote her/him in a piece, the expert gets more exposure to further her/his career while you have a credible piece sure to please your editor. It’s a win-win scenario.
About the author:
A graduate of Rutgers University, Elizabeth R. Elstien is a published author with over 25 years of writing, editing, research and marketing experience. As a former professional archaeologist credited with numerous academic publications and lectures to botanical medicine, business and real estate, Elizabeth’s writing credentials are wide ranging. Skilled in writing stellar business plans, bios/profiles and reports, Elizabeth also knows how to craft a slogan or marketing piece that gets results. A member of the Nonfiction Writers Association, Elizabeth is always eager to travel, learn and educate through exceptional wordcrafting. View www.Eelstien.com or contact her at Eelstien@Eelstien.com.
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