Laurie, your SME, watches you closely. She takes in your question, nods, and then launches into her story that perfectly illustrates how to solve a workplace problem. Her story includes problem-solving guidelines, and she describes how to apply these guidelines in a real-life scenario. You know this information will be highly valued by your target audience.

The subject matter expert (SME) interview is your power tool for gathering content-rich information. In my experience, the four characteristics of content-rich information form the acronym FRED: focused, relevant, engaging, and deep.

  1. Focused: The information targets one task, problem, or topic. You should present information in short chunks, which the learner can put to immediate use.
  2. Relevant: Information should be relevant to the audience and the tasks they need to perform. It should also fulfill a just-in-time need.
  3. Engaging: Content-rich learning brings facts to life with stories, examples, and scenarios.
  4. Deep: Finally, content-rich learning is detailed. It embodies the SME’s tacit knowledge, which is based on observation and experience.

In this article, I will focus on one of the skills for gathering content-rich learning: asking probing questions. A probing question uncovers hidden information and encourages the SME to think deeply about a topic.

Here are five best practices for asking probing questions to elicit content-rich information.

1. Create the right environment

SMEs need to feel that you are interested in what they have to say. Employ open body language: lean forward, make eye contact, nod where appropriate, and keep a neutral expression. This validates what they are saying and encourages them to share their knowledge.

While you do want to take notes, try to focus on SMEs while they are talking so they feel they have your full attention. This is also a good reason to record your interviews.

2. Ask non-judgmental questions

Prepare your questions in advance so you can make sure they are non-judgmental. Open-ended questions (what, how, who, when) are typically non-judgmental and allow for multiple responses. Other examples are: “Can you tell me about XYZ?” and “Can you explain XYZ?”

Be careful with “why” questions because the SME may feel like you are being judgmental. Always avoid leading or manipulative questions, such as: “Given that our executives think the problems are caused by XYZ, what do you think are the main causes?”

3. Listen for cues

Before you can probe, you need to listen for cues in the conversation (Table 1).

Table 1: Cues and responses

If you hear this cue:


A pause in the conversation

The SME may be thinking through what she will talk about and may need encouragement to keep going. Keep asking, “What else?”

Trailing off in conversation

The SME may need you to validate that what he is talking about is relevant and important to the learner. Then, continue asking questions.

Gaps in information

The SME may have left out something important. It could be something that you know from other sources, or something she previously spoke about. In either case, follow up and get clarification.

Crying out for a story or example

The SME may talk about guidelines he applies every day. Follow up by asking:

“Can you share a story that illustrates why this is important?”

“Can you tell me about a scenario or some real-life case studies that show proper and improper adherence to this guideline?”

4. Keep it concrete

To avoid SMEs’ talking off-topic during an interview, ask concrete questions to target the learning goals. You may say: “That’s a great point. Could you give an example?” or “It would be great if the learner could see how that works in practice. Could you share some examples?”

5. Use visual techniques

In addition to verbal answers, you also want to ask probing questions to obtain a visual response. These help create mental maps of the topic, task, or problem.

Some helpful questions to elicit visual information are “Can you show me?” or “Can you draw for me?”

Get the ball rolling by creating a structure for the SME’s response. For example, draw a Venn diagram to compare two items, create a roadmap-style map with different stops for a process with a specific goal, or create a mind map to show the different components of a concept.


These tips will help you use the power of probing questions to elicit focused, relevant, engaging, and deep content-rich information.