But before you start frantically scrambling to close out this browser window, have no fear -- this article will be less about an airing of long-standing grievances (I've got a few) and more of a tactical how-to, so you can make sure you're bringing the right content manager into your organization.
Specifically, I want to talk to you today about one of most critical skills you need to evaluate during the hiring process of your new content manager -- how well they can interview subject matter experts and then create a piece of incredible content ghost-written as that particular subject matter expert.
We've talked about the qualities you need to look for in a content manager before, but one that often gets glossed over is the fact that your content manager needs to be able to interview as easily as they breathe, effortlessly extracting incredible stories from those around them.
So, how do you test for this skill?
Have Your Content Manager Interview an Expert with This Situational Activity
For those who haven't heard of it before, however, the term simply refers to a stage of the hiring process during which we have a job candidate participate in an activity that approximates a common situation or task they'll be asked to complete through the duties of their potential role.
In the case of a content manager position, here is the activity we put our candidates through:
The job candidate is scheduled to interview an internal expert to whom they have never spoken on our team -- in our case, that expert was yours truly.
The interview can last up to 30 minutes and takes place over video -- we use Zoom for our video conferencing.
They are told in advance what the topic will be -- in our case, it was "How to Create Content Like a Thought Leader."
Following the interview they have up to 48 hours (from the time I send them the recording of our interview) to submit a 600- to 900-word article on the topic.
How I Approached This Activity as the Interviewee & Evaluator
The above activity can easily be adapted to any company, industry, or team. But here are three things I did that you may want to consider as you customize it to your needs:
I intentionally chose a topic that would weed out folks who didn't have at least have a willingness to embrace what we do (even if it's different from what they're used to) and take it seriously. "Thought leadership" as a concept is one that often draws a lot of eye rolls -- but that doesn't change how important it is to what we do. And since the best content manager candidates usually come from outside of one's industry, it was important to me to create a self-qualifying (or self-disqualifying) opportunity for someone to see if our industry was for them.
I would also occasionally go off script or launch into a "somewhat related" monologue to see how they would react or manage me. This is a tricky one to implement, because I am not a huge fan of "staged" challenges that are clearly gimmicks. They almost never work, because the candidate is immediately on guard with the knowledge that, "OK, this is a test." Instead, I tried to find those natural "And another thing!" moments that would easily happen in real life. It's always interesting to see how long someone would let me go and, most of all, what their strategies were for reeling me back in. (Personally, I like those who give me a little free reign to be excited or get fired up about something... but within reason.)
Because I'm a monster, I intentionally gave enough information for a 1,500- to 2,000-word article, close to double the word count of the original assignment. This is something that happens a lot "on the job" for a content manager -- you work with a brilliant subject matter expert, and you walk out of your interview with a mountain of raw materials that far exceeds the needs of the piece you're working on. The right candidate knows how to zero in on the most important elements of the story, as well as what needs to be "left on the cutting room floor."
How did I know how much information I was giving the candidates with such a degree of specificity? Well, the short answer is experience.
I've conducted thousands of hours of subject matter expert interviews for content -- website pages, blog articles, pillar content, podcast interviews, and so on. And through that experience, I've found the following content interview estimates tend to be spot on 99% of the time:
Five to 10 minutes: 400- to 600-word article
Fifteen to 20 minutes: 600- to 900-word article
Twenty-five to 35 minutes: 1,500- to 2,000-word article
Thirty-five to 45 minutes: 2,000- to 3,000-word article
Of course, these are just estimates, and there are some variables that can sometimes throw these numbers way off.
But usually when that happens, that's a sign of a poorly managed interview. For example, if you give a chatterbox free reign to manage the conversation, instead of gently keeping control of the dialogue and using your questions like bumpers in a bowling alley lane.
How to Evaluate the Interviewing Skills of Your Content Manager Candidate
You'd be amazed how much you learn about someone and their ability to fulfill the duties of being a content manager from a single topic-driven expert interview.
Of course, I am only able to say that after years of experience being a content manager myself (who still interviews subject matter experts), as well as other hiring content managers.
But the person at your company who will be hiring for this position will likely not have this background. (If they do, please introduce them to me. I like new content friends.)
So, here is what the person being interviewed for this situational activity by a content manager candidate needs to look out for:
The content managers I consider to be world-class understand one fundamental thing -- the way to get the best expert "goodness" out of a subject matter expert is to make them feel as comfortable as possible with you.
Meaning they are expert rapport-builders. They know how to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere that immediately puts a subject matter expert at ease.
For example, John Becker (our newest editorial content associate) did a fantastic job of this when he interviewed me for our situational activity. Instead of awkwardly diving into the questions he had prepared, he started the interview with a bit of small talk and light conversation.
During those few minutes, he not only quickly found a few areas of "common ground" between us, I was also able to relax and be more like myself because he created a space in which I didn't need to "perform." We were just two people talking.
This may not seem like a big deal, but let me tell you about what the inverse looks like.
A few years ago, I put someone else through a similar activity. They came prepared and had questions, but there was no chit-chat or conversation at the beginning.
Instead, they started right in with their questions -- to the point where they had even forgotten to really introduce themselves at all. It felt more like an interrogation.
By the end of the conversation, yes, they got what they needed to write their piece (and the final product wasn't bad at all!), but I felt so incredibly uncomfortable the entire time. And even though I would consider myself "seasoned" when it comes to being interviewed as an expert, I realized I was more stiff, clipped, and unnatural in my answers.
You do not want your content manager to make the people on your team feel this way. You need someone who can make your in-house experts -- who may not always come to the table feeling totally ready to share all of their knowledge -- feel comfortable.
Otherwise, your people won't want to make time to talk to your content manager, and the discomfort of your experts will be reflected in the final product of whatever content pieces were to be created from their interviews.
Asking Follow-Up Questions
I like when content manager job candidates come prepared to an interview-based situational activity with prepared questions. (There's a reason why we give them the topic in advance. I want to know who's genuinely excited about the role and does their homework.)
However, the best subject matter expert interviewers know one thing -- the meat of any story often lives in the follow-up questions you ask.
For example, whenever I go into an interview with an expert, I usually have between three and five questions in mind to ask that are designed to provide the basic "beginning-middle-end" architecture an article needs. Beyond that, however, I know the goods I'm looking for will lay in the answers to clarifying follow-up questions.
Often, initial answers -- while serviceable -- only scratch the surface of what you're really looking for.
That's why I always look for content manager candidates who know how to ask great follow-ups.
Follow-ups that get me to stop using the canned language I'm used to parroting when faced with the "usual" questions about what I do.
Follow-ups that get me to start talking like myself and sounding like a human being, instead of a big bottle of homogenous marketing jargon.
Follow-ups that get me to phrase ideas differently, so they are accessible and relatable to the audience I'm trying to reach.
That means you shouldn't trust a content manager candidate who asks no follow-up or clarifying questions based on specific answers you gave. I don't care how wonderful or seemingly "thorough" their prepared questions are. You have to trust me on this.
They Don't Do Most of the Talking
This is another thing John did really well in his interview with me, but I didn't realize it until about 30 minutes after our conversation had concluded. With a small handful of questions and maybe two or three pointed follow-ups, he got everything he needed from me.
At first, I was a little put off. (Sorry, John!)
A bit annoyed, I wondered to myself, "How did he do that?"
Is it even fair that he could just ninja his way through our interview and somehow trick me into spilling my guts about all of my feelings on thought leadership with seemingly little to no effort?
What's funny about the scenario with John is that anyone who knows me knows that I am a talker. Ask me a yes or no question, and you're getting an 18-paragraph answer, whether you like it or not.
Still, there's a limit. Particularly when someone interviews me about a topic -- I know I have a tendency to go off on tangents, so I try to self-manage my usual waterfall of opinions. And, in the context of an evaluator in a situational activity, I want to make someone work for the answers a little harder, of course.
So, I was a little miffed -- all of my little strategies were no match for John's seemingly innocuous line of questioning, which managed to unlock an onslaught of probably the most honest answers any candidate had gotten out of me on the same topic.
Then I realized something -- that's exactly what I wanted. In fact, it's something I try to do myself as a subject matter expert interviewer.
You want to hire a content manager who makes it easy for someone to just... talk about what they love to do and what they know the most about without a ton of intervention.
The goal of an interview is to get the expert talking and not the other way around.
Interviewing Skills Aren't Everything, but They're a Very, Very Big Something
Here's the thing -- a content manager candidate can absolutely wow you with their interviewing prowess, but still end up being a total dud.
For instance, I can't tell you how many times I've left an interview feeling positively elated about a candidate -- they built rapport like a champ, asked killer follow-up questions, and got me talking in the best way possible -- only to be completely disappointed by a lackluster draft.
If you can't deliver great content, that seemingly wonderful interview is now a big, fat waste of time in my eyes.
So, if you take only one thing away from this article let it be this -- you need to test your candidates for their ability to interview experts, and that will require a holistic approach to how you evaluate the interview itself.
But, ultimately, if they can't deliver the goods, they're just a good conversationalist... not your next content manager.
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