One of a writer’s main responsibilities (especially if the writer is communicating technical content) is drawing information from subject matter experts (SMEs). Here are the main four principles a technical communicator should follow when working with SMEs.
1. Organize the work properly up front
Without this step, you may be doomed. Whether you’re kicking off a new project, or working to continuously update technical documents, make sure you:
- Know who exactly you’re writing for
- Have a feel for how and when the technical information will be used
- Know your complete scope of work
- Know exactly when everything will be due
- Understand the priority of the work
Many managers and clients will gloss over this critical analysis. Don’t let them. Your relationships with SMEs will get really sticky very quickly, otherwise
2. Be persistent
Once you’ve started gathering the content for your manual, help system, or other document, you’ll get some push-back. Most people are busy, as a rule. Don’t take it personally if someone puts you off.
At the same time, if you let that go too far, deadlines will be missed. And you will be blamed, at least in part, even if you don’t think it’s your fault. To avoid that, you need to use several basic techniques to overcome SME roadblocks:
- Light: Try to develop your relationship with the SME.
Smile at them. Leave them a thank-you note when they give you what you need. Always be on time. Be very good at your job. Be available to help, quickly. Explain any changes you think should be made.
- Medium: Communicate regularly with the SME’s superior.
You don’t have the authority to set priorities for the SME. Their manager does.
- Heavy: Sit down with the SME and their manager to go over the problem, and your proposed solution.
Don’t be afraid to do this. Your company/client may thank you later.
3. Don’t make mistakes
There are a few cardinal sins that can ruin a technical communicator’s relationship with a SME. Your relationship can recover after making one of these mistakes, but it will be difficult:
- Waste the SME’s time.
You can’t arrive late to meetings. And you can’t ask for a meeting that you don’t really need. More than anything, you can’t waste work the SMEs have already done for you. If you make a habit of misplacing document markups, you will soon find yourself out of a job.
- Fail to understand concepts.
A new tech writer had an hour-long meeting with a SME (an engineer). The SME spent the better part of the meeting trying to explain an engineering concept to the writer. She just couldn’t understand what he was talking about.
Then the writer and engineer went to lunch with a group of co-workers. At the restaurant, the writer laughed at the restaurant for the glaring typo she found in their menu. The engineer was disgusted.
You don’t have to be an engineer in order to communicate technical content that relates to engineering. But if you can’t understand basic concepts quickly, you’re in the wrong field. No one will care how good of a proofreader you are.
- Fail to prove your own skillset.
You’re supposed to be a great writer. You’re supposed to know how to analyze and organize content better than other people. That’s why you have a job.
So if you write emails with typos in them, or turn in documents with grammatical errors, you look like a fraud. We can’t do that to ourselves. If that means you have to stop emailing from your phone, because you misspell too many words that way, so be it.
- Be a dork.
Most writers already have a tough enough time earning credibility, and proving they’re not just a hack, a frivolous cost center. You must look nice. You must talk nice (up to a point). Sounds soft, but basic social grace goes a long way towards making things work out.
4. Learn new techniques
There are a myriad of ways to get the information you need to put together a good manual, or process document, or proposal, or whatever. Don’t get stuck on one.
If you get into a new position or a new project, and the way you’re working with the SMEs isn’t working for more than a couple of weeks, don’t sit around and wait for things to get better. They usually get worse.
Examples of how you might change tactics:
1. You are working with a senior-level accountant who is responsible for some key financial reports at an energy company. You need to document how they put together those reports. The accountant is supposed to write up a rough draft of the procedure and related information, and send it to you to clean up.
But they just can’t seem to find the time to get it done. What do you do?
First, ask for a brain dump. “Don’t worry about making sure everything is in there, or that you’ve covered every single step or possibility.” Have them send you a mess of information, then organize it and review it with them. You must be able to deal with dense, jumbled clumps of technical content.
If that doesn’t work, ask to sit with the SME the next time they complete the procedures. You may be able to capture the content you need by doing a couple of runs that way. And you can avoid slowing the SME down too much.
2. You are working with 5 engineers to document how one of their drilling systems work. You are able to schedule meetings with 4 of the SMEs, but the fifth won’t return any emails or phone calls, or make eye contact with you in the hall. What do you do?
Of course, you should try all of the tips above. But sometimes even the best techniques don’t prove to be effective every time. Look for something new.
Remember that incentives can also be helpful. Ask the SME’s manager if they can offer a carrot (or a stick) to their employee if they do/don’t get the work done on time.
Now, for a contractor or a technical communication firm like EDI, offering incentives directly isn’t legal. But there are some creative ways to help SMEs feel like they’re moving towards a great end point.
EDI is working on some innovative solutions in that regard. When we have them ready to go, we would be happy to share our method with you.
For a while now, I’ve been running across want ads for technical writers in the oil and gas industry. I have noticed some huge problems with how many of the broken want ads are written. I’ve also come across a few gems. I’m going to share one of each type here.
While these problems are present in ads for tech writers across industries, they are most evident in the oil and gas industry.
The bad one
Here are some excerpts from an example of a bad tech writer want ad (email us for the full version):
“… We are currently recruiting for a Technical Writer with an extensive background in oil and gas and/or petrochemical industry. This is for a long term contract opportunity with a fantastic company in Houston. This position is at 4 to 6 months, poss. longer”
We’ll ignore the minor grammar faux pas (I’ve written elsewhere about how technical communicators shouldn’t be too hard on others’ writing mistakes, but should seek to eliminate all of their own. The biggest problems are the focus and the scope of the qualifications here.
What exactly does an “extensive background in oil and gas and/or petrochemical industry” mean? If I have worked on newsletters for 20 years for an upstream oil company, does that mean I’m qualified to write safety manuals for a midstream gas company? When you move from niche to niche in oil and gas, most of the processes and terminology change drastically. There’s really no such thing as a “background in oil and gas,” when you get right down to it. The fields of oil and gas are too broad for that.
“The Technical Writer (Engineering) will write, format, edit, and validate technical documents to generate operation and maintenance manuals according to client and product requirements.
Under close direction, compile data from various sources to be included in project manuals.
Keep supervisor updated on all current issues pertaining to engineering standards manuals.
Excellent written and verbal communication skills.
Thorough knowledge of products/services.
Advanced PC Skills.”
Wait a second. Is what’s most important that the writer knows about some area of the oil and gas industry, or is it that they can organize technical content, and write well? Is writing just an afterthought? Which products/services should they know about? And what are “Advanced PC Skills,” and which ones should the writer have?
Really, what many oil and gas companies want more than anything when they say they want a writer with an extensive background in oil and gas is someone who is willing to write, who knows a particular subset of terminology. They want a terminologist more than a real technical communicator. Is that wise?
Look at this simple graphic:
The red is all the people who know a lot of terminology in a particular area. The blue is the people who know how to write and organize technical content, generally. The purple is the people who know a lot of the terminology in that area, and have the ability to write and organize technical content, too.
Narrowing the candidates down to only those who know a particular set of terminology makes the graphic look more like this:
So what happens? There is almost no chance that the company will hire someone who will do a good job of writing and organizing the content. So the company comes to believe that there’s not much to be said for technical communication. They might as well just hire someone who will write, and make sure they know the terminology. And so the cycle continues.
How do you break that cycle? Check out the following ad.
The good one
Here are excerpts from a far superior ad, from a company that works with oil and gas companies. (Email us for the full version.)
“Technical writing company seeks energetic, enthusiastic, flexible
employees for immediate employment.
Must have a great attitude and good command of the English language (to
do editing and/or writing of technical documents).”
So I know something about the company culture, and I know what my key role will be.
“Sr. Writer revises or originates technical content according to client
requirements using resources provided by the client. The writer may work
on the client site or in our office. Skills used regularly are 1) target
audience assessment 2) content assessment 3) consulting with client on
document design 4) content organization 5) document formatting 6)
Aha. So it’s saying that my key ability on the job will be to be able to take the right technical content and make it work for the right people. This isn’t talking about a hack who knows some terms. This is an expert in their field.
“Must be an advanced user of MS Word and skilled in the application of
templates and styles. Must be proficient with Adobe Acrobat
Professional. Advanced proficiency preferred with PowerPoint, Excel, and
Again, this is specific. I know exactly which software packages I need to be familiar with before I apply here.
– 4 – 6 years’ technical writing experience with an emphasis on
– Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience
– Oil and gas experience is a plus
– Supervisory experience is also a plus”
Again, very specific. And “oil and gas experience” is a valid qualification, even if it shouldn’t be the primary concern. Why? Not because it actually helps you much when it comes to writing and organizing the content. But because prestige is very important throughout the oil industry and the gas industry. And being able to say “I have oil and gas experience” can help get your foot in the door at many companies, even if won’t make you more competent.
And I do have oil and gas experience.
Here are the top 10 ways a technical communicator can establish his/her value:
10. Embrace your personality. If you’re an introvert, be thankful. It takes solitude and lots of thinking to produce really good documentation. At the same time, if you’re one of the rare extroverts in this field, you have a leg up in getting people to value your work.
9. Get them to bring you in early. Whether you work for a company or are an independent, research shows that the earlier in the process you get onto the project, the more successful you (and the project) will be.
8. Recognize that your career is a marketing project. Everyone we know, from business contacts to friends to churchmembers to our old, kooky Uncle Murphy should know what we do, and how that benefits our companies.
7. Set some goals. How are you going to get to the point whereat those you work with will treat you and your work with real respect? What would have to happen for that to occur? What certifications or degrees would help you establish your credibility more?
6. Market yourself through your writing. You’re a writer, after all. About the best way you can show others your value is through your writing. Whether it be with notes of appreciate, emails that never have typos, or a friendly reminder telling your supervisor what all you’ve been doing to save the company money, do put yourself out there.
5. Not everyone has to like you. The important thing is that we’re professionally appealing to a few important people. Don’t go into work saying “I hope I don’t get in trouble for anything today.” Go in saying “I’m going to create real value through my work today, and I hope I don’t have to kick anyone’s behind to make that happen.” That’s hard to do for most tech writers, but it can be the difference between success and failure.
4. Take on real responsibility. Maybe marketers and other communicators recognize this need more than technical writers do, and that’s how we end up with VPs of Marketing, but no VPs of Technical Communication, except at specialized companies. This includes taking responsibility for your own continuing education.
3. Refuse to be blown off. Who hasn’t been shrugged off by multiple SMEs who either tell us they’re “just too busy,” or simply ignore us? You have to be willing to, first, develop a real relationship with the SME. Then, you must have the guts to march into that SME’s office and confront him or her if s/he is keeping you from getting to where you need to be.
2. Don’t be too thankful for your job (or clients). By that I mean don’t adopt a dependent attitude towards any one client. As a business owner, about the only thing worse than hearing an unemployed technical communicator say “I’m not sure if I really want to be working in this field or not” is hearing “Oh, would you give me a job?” Your job isn’t a gift. You earned it by virtue of your abilities.
1. Eventually, at some point, the technical communication industry has to move away from hourly billing. Hourly billing has no relation to the actual value we provide to businesses. As a result, our earning power has been vastly reduced, and companies tend to get rid of us as soon as possible. When our industry finally gets a handle on the impact that good technical communication has on companies’ bottom lines, we’ll all be sitting pretty.