How Writers Can Work Efficiently with SMEs



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.

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