quick tips for working with SMEs

Stock photo of people in meetingYou know the drill. The meeting is in the small conference room at the far end of some cheap airport hotel. Inside, there’s nothing to sustain you until lunch but tepid coffee and stale cheese danish dusted with spilled non-dairy creamer. Yet, for some reason, instead of bonding over a shared fate, the participants quickly divide into two camps — the experts and the interlopers.

A SME chuckles about “you English majors.” Your publications manager mutters something about “those knuckle-draggers.” And that’s just the morning of the first day.

Whether you write instructional textbooks, online help content, user guides, or even feature articles, as a technical writer you rely on the people who know the topic better than anyone else — subject matter experts, or SMEs. Likewise, SMEs rely on you to interpret and translate their information, to present it clearly and accurately, and to make it easy for the reader to understand and follow.

Nevertheless, writers and SMEs often have difficulty establishing a collaborative relationship, and the resulting friction only hurts the final product.

Like it or not, it’s up to you to establish a good working relationship with your SMEs right from the start. Here’s how:

  1. Do your homework. Develop enough of an understanding of the subject so that you can hold a reasonably intelligent conversation with a SME. Come up with some thoughtful questions that, in casual conversation, will encourage him to display his knowledge.
  2. Stroke. SMEs have a lot of pride for their hard-won knowledge and experience, and they probably resent not being asked to write the book themselves. And who can blame them? Demonstrate that you’re not a threat; you’re there to listen and learn from them. Find ways to convince them that you’re not undermining their authority — nod a lot and take notes while they talk. Don’t interrupt to correct them. Don’t show off.
  3. Find common ground. You need to find the secret handshake. Sports. Favorite fishing lures. A relative who works in the same field as the SME. Anything. It’s the equivalent of the school tie or the academy ring.
  4. Be a professional. Show them that you can take the ribbing and give it right back — with humor. Don’t take offense or be defensive. When challenged, make your points clearly and demonstrate that you, too, know what you’re talking about.
  5. Make an ally. Tips 1 through 4 should be enough to help you get the respect of at least one SME at the table. When he backs you up on some point, the others will notice. And gradually they will acknowledge that you’re sitting at the big boys’ table.

Welcome to trust.

There is one very important caveat: don’t mix the personal with the professional. You’re establishing these connections for the purpose of smoothing out the writing, editing, and publication process. Over dinner, relax and be friendly. Back in the conference room the next day, be prepared to disabuse any expectations that your friendliness means that you’re prepared to neglect your professional ethical standards, obligations to your client, or the quality of the final product. Someday, somewhere, a shark-smooth SME will try to take advantage of you. Your professional reputation can’t ever recover from being compromised.

Now go forth and mollify.

Author: Paul Lagasse

Paul Lagasse provides expert-to-expert communications services to nonprofit, business, and government clients in the metro Baltimore-DC area. Specialties include science and medical writing, technical report editing, and content marketing.

2 thoughts on “quick tips for working with SMEs”

  1. Finding common ground is the key to working with SME’s. I have been on both sides of the table and the key is to find something beyond the “topic at hand” to discuss. Pets, kids, hobbies anything will make the hours go so much faster. But as Paul said it is important to be professional at all time. It is a business relationship, not a personal one.

  2. Excellent advice, all of it. I’ve been there, too (maybe in that same shark tank) and it’s so important to remember it’s not about you–the writer–it’s about the finished product and the reader. Once you get the SMEs to “see” the person who will be looking at their expertise to form their own, it often turns ugly situations around.

    And I have to add, that being the “English major” is a hard expertise to carry off. You either come across as an effete intellectual snob (thank you, Spiro Agnew, the ultimate SME as Vice President to Richard Nixon) or as a pushover. Your tips help keep a balance.

    Oh, and one more thing. Never get in a drinking match with an SME. You won’t win, you will wind up doing the chicken dance, the SME will take your picture, and send it out to YouTube.

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