In every writers life comes a time when we are sent out to talk to “Joe the Expert” in order to get the technical, industry or product specific details we need to affectively do our jobs. Whether you are an in-house writer for the same company as Joe or a freelancer trying to navigate an unfamiliar org chart Joe can be a difficult and elusive guy to find.
By virtue of the fact that Joe is an Expert that also typically means he is a very busy guy. You don’t typically become a respected and legendary guru of any business area without a to do list that stretches into the next millennium and beyond. The techniques I outline in this article are designed for you to make the most out of Joe’s precious time will simultaneously getting you the info you need.
1. First Contact
The first thing I do try to reach Joe live and in person. A phone call or a brief conversation in the break room to introduce myself and ask if I can have 5 minutes of his time to discuss my project. Respect any pushback you get. If he is rushing out try to secure a better time to talk in the next 24 hours. I find early morning hours at the coffee pot are a good time to catch a less hurried Joe getting a cup of joe.
I am sure you are saying “why not email Joe?” Joe’s inbox is a wasteland. In my experience if he doesn’t recognize your name he might not even read your email for days. It is harder to ignore a pleasant but persistent person in the flesh.
2. Great Expectations
Once you have your 5 minutes you must be prepared to set expectations. A little prepared speech like this covers all the bases:
I need to write a 5 page solutions brief about the challenges of medical supply industry to meet their timely shipping needs. My deadline is the 15th of next month. I would like your assistance identifying any third party data on the subject as well as could we set down for two 1 hour conversations. The first meeting to get me started on my research and then a second conversation after I have created a first draft for you to critique my progress.
Make sure in your request you give him scope, length and the extent of his involvement. Sometimes it is a subject you are already pretty familiar with and you just want one meeting. If it is a new subject for you, I always push for two 1 hour meetings. The worst he can say is no.
3. The Homework
Do all the research you can before the first meeting with Joe. Search your internal shared drives if you work for the company for documents Joe created. If you are a freelancer have your internal marketing contact do the same. Be sure to create a list of any terms or acronyms you don’t understand. Google search the industry terms and get knowledgeable.
Competitor data and similar collateral (white papers, case studies, solution briefs) contain great nuggets. I recently read a competitor white paper that referenced a government study. I found the government study on-line and it yield some very compelling data the competitor had failed to mention in their paper because it directly supported my customers product benefits.
4. The First Date
Your first meeting with Joe you should come in with a prepared list of questions. Based on your research you want to test your assumptions and validate your hypothesis. I also like to ask if can bring a tape recorder. Most people will agree if you promise to destroy the tape as soon as your project is complete. I do this because I tend to get very engaged in the discussion and thus am a poor note taker when I am engrossed in conversation. Assure Joe if he consents to taping this will minimize the validations you have to do after the fact.
My main goal out of the first meeting is to uncover research paths that I haven’t unearthed as part of the Homework step. You don’t know what you don’t know so Joe is the key to unlocking those mysteries and guiding you in the right direction.
5. The Final Frontier
Once you have a good solid first draft of your White Paper, Case Study, Solution Brief, etc I like to send it to Joe for a content review in advance of the second meeting. The purpose of the second meeting is for him to validate the content as correct and accurate. You are not the expert so defer to him in all technical, product or industry specific matters.
6. Joe vs Joe
Occasionally you will be pointed in the direction of two “experts” for a single project. Most of the time they validate each other and give you that warm fuzzy feeling of harmony in the universe. In rare cases where this doesn’t happen and the Joe’s are at odds with each other I find it is either necessary to take it up to a higher Joe on the org chart or to your boss / sponsor to settle the conflict. You as the writer must not take sides. You are a neutral interpreter of the facts and since you will likely need both Joe’s in the future for projects don’t burn any bridges.
Making the most out of your expert interviews in a critical step to the success of any white paper / case study / solution brief writing project. I hope following these simple steps will make your next effort more successful. As always I welcome our readers to add their own tips to the list.