Lessons from Goldilocks: Getting SME Content Just Right
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Use the story arc elements to interview subject matter experts and write compelling content
Remember the story of Goldilocks? Here’s the abridged version:
Three bears live in a cottage in the forest. One day, the bears make porridge, but it’s too hot to eat so they go for a walk. While they are away, Goldilocks stumbles upon their cottage, wanders in, and rudely makes herself at home. Goldilocks proceeds to try each bowl of porridge until she finds one that’s “just right.” She then takes a nap in Baby Bear’s bed. She is awakened when the bears return home and is frightened to death. Goldilocks crashes out of the window and runs home. In her rush, she loses her flowers and berries and gets scolded by her mother. Goldilocks realizes what a naughty girl she has been. The end.
OK, great. What’s this got to do with business writing and interviewing subject matter experts (SMEs)?
Well, like most good stories, the Goldilocks fairy tale uses the five key elements of a story arc. You can use these same five elements in business writing to guide your subject matter expert interview and craft a compelling story for your audience.
What Are the 5 Elements of a Story Arc?
If you’re like me, you learned these story arc elements back in high school English Lit, and have long since forgotten. Let’s have a quick review.
Image source: https://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-a-story-arc-definition-examples.html
1. The Exposition - The introduction and the background information that primes the reader for the rest of the story. This should include the who, where, and when.
- Three bears that loved porridge lived in the forest. Goldilocks lived on the edge of the forest.
2. Rising Action - The conflict or inciting incident. This is the why; the reason for telling the story in the first place.
- Goldilocks stumbles upon the bear’s cottage and goes inside. Goldilocks is now in bear territory—there’s no telling what could happen.
3. Climax - This is where the conflict comes to a head and the characters converge. The protagonist is faced with a decision and must adopt a solution.
- With Goldilocks asleep in the cottage, the hungry bears return home. Will they eat her alive? Is Goldilocks packing heat? Goldilocks wakes up scared to death and decides to run away.
4. Falling Action - This is where we see the protagonist’s decision play out. The resolution, or lack thereof, is insight.
- The bears spare her life and Goldilocks runs away. But as a result of her misdeeds, Goldilocks drops all the flowers and berries she originally went into the woods to gather.
5. Resolution - At last, there is a final determination. We have arrived at a result, a lesson, or a conclusion.
- Goldilocks arrives home safe and she has learned to follow her mother’s rules. (Incidentally, she should have also learned to respect others’ property).
Applying the 5 Story Elements to Your SME Interview
I don’t know about you, but when I hear there are three bears cooking up some porridge in their cottage, I want to know more. But take a business topic like how mobile devices improve factory operations….mehh. Not so much.
When it comes to technical or business writing, catching and maintaining the audience’s attention while delivering value can be a difficult task.
One way to overcome this is to deploy the five story elements in your content creation. Writing content in a story style is almost always good practice—but here I specifically discuss the strategy for subject matter expert content.
To produce SME story content, you’ve first got to structure your SME interview with the five story elements in mind. Here’s how to go about it:
1. The Exposition - Set up the story. Break the ice by asking your expert some foundational questions.
Why did you get into the field?
At a high-level, what do you do? What problems do you solve?
What’s been most rewarding? What’s been most challenging?
2. Rising Action - Identify the WHY. Establish the problem and motivations. Ask the SME to describe specific challenges or unsatisfactory results they experienced. The line of questioning will vary, but in general, you want to dig into:
What was going wrong?
What are the motivations for change?
3. Climax - What actions were taken? What is the proposed solution and why? Ask questions like:
Why did you choose this solution?
What were the risks?
4. Falling Action - What does the solution look like in action? This the journey to resolution. Ask questions like:
Were there hiccups along the way?
What were the expectations vs. the reality?
How did it work out?
What were the results?
5. Resolution - What was the end result and the lessons learned? Ask questions like:
What did you learn from this?
What do you know now that you wish you knew before?
What were your main takeaways from this journey?
What’s next for you? What’s next for this industry?
By tailoring this line of questioning to your specific topic and expert, you can set yourself up for an easy writing process with a built-in story arc to engage your readers. This format can work even for less exciting topics that don't have a mischievous protagonist like Goldilocks.
Check out how this author brought life to the seemingly mundane topic of tracking product SKUs across businesses by sharing the story of her SME.
Interview Prep and Execution
Before you can make a connection with your readers, you need to make a connection with your SME. You’ll need to approach the interview with genuine interest in your SME and their expertise. Only then will they share the juicy details and the nuggets of knowledge that you need to produce content your audience will love.
To get the most out of your SME interview, come prepared:
Establish goals for the interview
Lay out clearly why you are conducting the interview. Why do you want to interview this specific person? What can your audience learn from them? What is the content type? Is it a whitepaper? A how-to? Share these goals with the SME when you first approach them.
Do your homework
Know about your interview subject and their field. What are the current trends? What has this person worked on? What would your audience want to ask them?
Customize a list of questions (and keep it to yourself)
To guide your conversation, use the five story elements to customize a list of questions for your expert. But don’t send it to them unless they request it, and even then, offer few details—rehearsed answers tend to be boring. Instead, let your interviewee know the topic, the goals, and areas you want to dig into.
Get your SME’s permission and record the interview. The last thing you want is to try (and fail) to balance taking notes while being present enough to ask intelligent questions.
Tip #1: Leverage the pause - If you’ve got a less loquacious interview target, they may try to stick to pre-thought out answers and not offer much more. Before you move on to your next question, pause for an awkward moment. People hate silence and tend to fill it with words. Maybe, just maybe, those awkward ramblings will contain some golden details for your story.
Tip #2: Don’t stick to your questions - Your list of questions is a guide, not a blueprint set in stone. If you are doing a technical how-to post, it may be important to capture some key bits of information. But otherwise, let the interview flow more like a conversation—you’ll find it easier to elicit stories.
Tip #3: Elicit and clarify - You may want to excavate some more details. To do so, follow-up vague answers with phrases like “Can you say more about how...” or “So what you’re saying is...” You may also want to ask for confirmation with phrases like “So as you see it…” or “So far, I see the main takeaways as.” They will likely want to correct misunderstandings or fill-in any gaps.
Craft the Story
When you get off the call, you should immediately write down key thoughts and takeaways while it's fresh in your mind. Next, unless you are happy to do hours of mundane work, get the interview transcribed. This will help you quickly scan notes, identify quotes, and easily circle back to keywords and segments. For reasonable transcription costs, use a service like Rev.com or a qualified freelancer from Fiverr or Upwork.
If you integrated the story elements into your interview, you should be well-positioned to write out engaging story-styled content. Even so, don’t be afraid to follow-up with your expert to flesh out certain details before you start writing.
Bonus Tip #4: Find the hidden title - Scour the transcript to find your headline. There’s a good chance there is a winner in there!
The final step is to get your SME to review the story. I emphasize review because you are the writer, and SME is not the editor (unless otherwise agreed upon). Generally, you don’t want them to change everything up once the content team feels the piece is looking good.
There may not be a Goldilocks in every piece of content you work on, but there’s almost certainly a story—and it's up to you to make it just right.
Want to explore your content strategy? Get in touch!