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Working With Subject Matter Experts

Editor’s Note: This was the feature article in this month’s TechCom Manager newsletter, reprinted here with permission. Click the previous link to subscribe to the newsletter.

by David Tinsley

One of the many challenges that a technical writer faces early on is learning to work with subject matter experts (SMEs). What or who is an SME? He/she may be a software developer who is creating code for an API, a mechanical engineer who is designing a front panel interface, or a regulatory professional who is testing the system against specific standards. In essence, anyone providing you with expert knowledge about the subject you are documenting can be an SME.

As technical writers, we obtain a lot of our source material from SMEs and we need to develop the skills required to work with a wide range of people. For those of us who may be introverted by nature, overcoming our natural reticence can be difficult, but it is something we should be continually trying to improve.

So what are some of the challenges that you may encounter in your day-to-day dealings with SMEs and how can you overcome them? The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but it describes some of the common challenges you may face with suggestions on how you might overcome them.

Providing Reviews on Time
This is one of the biggest issues we have to overcome. We request a document review and it disappears into a black hole. When you deliver a document for review, always do so face-to-face and discuss and agree on deadlines and expectations. Ensure that the SME realizes you cannot complete the document without feedback and what a lack of review will mean to the overall project. I know some writers who offer incentives like donuts for a timely review, but I consider that unprofessional. If it is part of the SME job function to provide reviews, then there is no need for bribes!

On our part we need to be aware that the developer SME you are haranguing for a review may just have pulled a week of 16-hour days trying to resolve software bugs. We need to be “plugged in” to the project so we know what is going on. Maybe someone else can review the document? Maybe there is a business case to move on without this review. Build a rapport with the team so you get to know them personally. Spend a couple of minutes in small talk when you deliver the document and a spot of humor never goes amiss.

Useless Reviews
I am sure you know the situation. You deliver a 150-page document for review and get it back 30 minutes later signed off as “satisfactory.” Hmmmmm. There’s something fishy there, but what do you do? Talk! Go chat with the SME and discuss the review. Perhaps there was miscommunication on expectations. Perhaps the SME did not take it seriously and thought the review was merely a rubber stamp job. It is our job to explain the importance of accurate and comprehensive reviews and get buy-in from the reviewer. Remember, some SMEs may not intuitively realize that their input is important to the end product.

The SME as Writer
Occasionally, you may come across an SME who wants to provide input towards layout and style. You should listen to their ideas, they may have a very good point that you would want to incorporate into the document. If it was a personal subjective preference, then you need to diplomatically thank them for their input but explain you are only wanting a technical review. Having technical communications guidelines and a style guide is very useful in this situation, as you can refer them to these documents. Just be sure that you are actually following the guidelines and styles yourself!

Dismissive SME
Unfortunately, one day you will encounter dismissive SMEs. Typically, these are- people who consider technical writers to be part of the clerical staff and who act in an offhand or disrespectful manner. Do as much background work as you can so that when you meet with this type of SME, your questions are pertinent and show that you know your subject. Let them know that you need their knowledge so you can do your job better. Get them on your side. Ask relevant questions and make sure you understand the answer so you don’t have to go back and ask the same questions again. Act like the confident professional that you are!

Throughout my years as a technical writer, I have learned that forming good personal and professional relationships is fundamental to success. Let the SMEs see you around and see you involved in the project. Integrate with the team and demonstrate that you understand and have an interest in the subject and technology.

Provide your skill as a user advocate to suggest what the legend on those switches should say, their physical location and the color of the indicators. Talk to the application developer about the layout of the GUI and the words to use in the dialogs. Remember, you will always be “just” the technical writer if you act that part. Show them your multi-dimensional talents and the value they bring to the team!

About the Author

David Tinsley
David Tinsley

David Tinsley has been in the technical communication field for over 15 years in various industries and across two continents. In a previous life, he spent over 20 years as an Avionics Engineer. Currently, he is Manager of Technical Communications at Northern Digital Inc, in Waterloo, Ontario. He is also a senior member of the STC and serves as a competition judge for his local chapter.



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