Thought leadership can help you shorten your sales cycle and lend credibility to your brand. And research shows that B2B leaders are paying attention. Nearly half of the C-suite says they vet an organization by its thought leadership and 81% say their trust increases after engaging with thought leadership content.

Thought leadership increases trust in an organization.

Our clients have had similar results. By developing a steady stream of thought leadership content they’ve situated themselves as leaders in their industry. The content we’ve created with them helps individual leaders within the company build relationships, and it helps them show what they know in RFP responses and proposals.

But developing thought leadership takes some serious skills—skills that we’ve honed over time here at Scribewise. We’ve learned how to work with leaders and subject matter experts (SMEs) at a number of companies, from fast-moving startups to global enterprises. Here’s how we get the most out of each interaction we have with an SME.

Know Your Audience

This is true of any marketing activity. You’ve got to know your audience before you begin strategizing, writing or designing. If it’s not written for the right people, they obviously won’t read it. When it comes to thought leadership, you should know a little bit about your audience before you talk to an SME. It’ll help you shape your questions and frame the content you ultimately create.

Get a Primer

Sometimes we generate ideas on our own and pitch them to our clients; other times, our clients toss an idea our way and suggest someone who could serve as an SME. The best way to have a productive conversation with someone who is likely very busy is to understand the specific angle of a topic. We typically ask our clients to send us a few bullet points or a sentence or two about the topic just to shape our research and the interview. No need for a formal document. This is just about getting an SME’s thoughts on a particular topic.

Do Your Research

It’s hugely important to conduct research before talking to an expert. While you may not be able to do a whole lot of research around the exact topic itself, it pays to have a general understanding of the main principles of your topic.

That means you should:

  • Research your topic online and find authoritative sources. Obviously, content from competitors can provide context, but try to find other useful resources to learn about your topic.
  • Identify industry publications. Find spots where other similar thought leaders sound off and where your audience hangs out. You’ll get an idea of where your audience stands on the topic, and any recent developments.
  • Scour social media. For a B2B audience, check out LinkedIn groups that might be applicable. You may also find a fair amount of chatter on Twitter and Facebook, depending on the topic.

 Develop Lots of Questions

Have you ever tried to interview someone and it felt more like pulling teeth? That’s an awful position to be in if you don’t have enough background information and your goal is to get information out of your SME to write a thoughtful and intelligent piece of content.

Write out as many questions as you can, just in case you need them. You’ll probably find that you can get by with a few “starter” questions and the follow-ups naturally flow into the conversation. But don’t always rely on that. Be prepared.

Get into the habit of sending SMEs the questions before your interview. It’ll help them prepare (if they have time) and help you avoid procrastinating.

Be Specific

I can’t stress enough how important it is to be specific during the interview—and how difficult it is to be specific if you don’t understand a topic. Asking specific questions and follow-ups is the best way to figure out the nuance of a content piece and make it as interesting as possible for your audience.

However, this is often easier said than done. It may mean driving your SME to avoid industry jargon and generalities and provide specific examples about a topic. If I’m talking to an SME about insurance funding strategies, for example, I always ask for a real-life client example. This helps me confirm that I understand what the SME is saying, and it’s also often useful to include in a piece of content.

Think on Your Feet

Interviews are tough—you’ve got to phrase questions the right way, take notes and listen at the same time. You’ve also got to make sure you’re getting what you need out of your SME—which may require rephrasing a question or asking it in a different way to tease out the information. We call this “thinking on your feet”—it’s a matter of digging deeper into a topic or offering a creative suggestion quickly, and the best way to get better at is with lots of practice.

“Is there anything else I should know?”

Even after spending time researching and planning for an SME interview, you might not uncover everything. Ask your SME if there’s anything else they’d like to add to the conversation. Often times it’s this question that helps to add context to the conversation or provides an opportunity to discuss other relevant information that can help shape the message. We’ve even found these open-ended questions lead to other topics that could be covered in the future.