Playing Nicely With Subject Matter Experts

I gave this talk today at the 2013 STC Rocket City Technical Communication Conference. Perhaps it will be of some use to you.

When Working with SMEs Goes Badly
I began my talk with a couple of Subject Matter Expert (SME) horror stories from the tech writing trenches. If you’ve done the job for any amount of time, you no doubt have your own. These are mine.

Example #1: Battle of the Egos
So when I worked in the Disney IT department, I needed a programmer to give me some information for a software development document. I kept asking (name changed to protect the guilty), “Hey, Mike! Where’s that info I need?” After a sufficient number of inquiries of this nature, Mike got irritated with me and snapped, “Why are you pushing so hard on this? No one’s going to read what you write, anyway.” To which I replied, equally impolitely, “Why are you working so hard on that code? No one’s ever going to use it.”
Okay, not my most diplomatic moment, but he did get me the information.

RageExample #2: The Genius

A few years ago, I was assigned to help write an internal proposal within NASA. The SME was a bit put out that he was sent a writer at all. “Look, I’ve got a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and I’ve taken a seven-day course in proposal writing. I know everything there is to know about this business.” Or words to that effect. I bit my tongue on this occasion, but I found it amusing when a proposal reviewer complained about the language in a section the SME had written and wouldn’t let me touch. “This is dry and a bit condescending. Did your technical writer read this?” For what it’s worth, that proposal did win.

Regardless of the horror stories, the bottom-line lesson here is that these conflicts arose out of a lack of mutual respect. It’s important to respect the value that your SME brings to the table, but it also helps if that respect goes both ways. Sometimes that takes a while.

How Should We Work with SMEs?

Hi There

Americans tend to be very informal, and it’s tempting for us to just walk into someone’s office or accost them in the hallway and ask them something. However, if you work in large, formal, bureaucratic organizations, it is good to remember a little etiquette and protocol. Protocol means you follow the official chain of command to get to Subject Matter Expert X, via formal email/Outlook invitation or via appointment made through their assistant. Etiquette means you approach such matters politely.

What this means in practical terms is that you set a formal meeting with an agenda (topic/context/questions stated up front) so the SME knows the reason for the discussion. You need to show up on time for the meeting. You need to stick to your agenda and end on time–basic rules of the road, just as Mom always taught. Their time is as valuable as yours–probably more, depending on what they make per hour. In any case, this protocol-based approach will not guarantee that the SME won’t get into the weeds on their own (“Back in ’67, when we were working with von Braun…”). The side stories are often a bonus in my work because I find the history of the space business fascinating, but there are times when you might need to interrupt (politely, of course) and say, “You know what? This is an interesting story, and I’d like to hear the whole thing sometime. But right now, I really need to now more about X.”

At the conclusion of the interview, ask the SME to review the content (proposal, press release, white paper, etc.) that you wrote based on the interview. This is a good time to set some expectations regarding the easiest way to give and receive feedback–phone call? Track Changes in Word?–as well as when you need the SME’s inputs. And, as always, thank them for their time.

How Should We Communicate with SMEs?


Technology now offers us many different ways to communicate with each other, some with differing levels of engagement and effectiveness. Some people prefer Post-It Notes. Some like text messaging, which to me is the worst method for getting things done, but suffices when you’re in a hurry. Email is a little better because people are more likely to type better and more formally in front of a grownup-size keyboard than typing quickly on those little-kid keys on their smart phone. The next method of communicating is that old standby, speaking on the telephone–you know: what we used to use our phones for before we started playing Angry Birds with them. The most effective method for human beings is still in person, face to face. Usually. There are some people who don’t like a lot of people around and are more comfortable conversing by email. I usually look at this as an opportunity to apply the Golden Rule to communications: communicate with your SME as they would prefer to communicate. You should be a little more obliging to their style of doing things since they’re helping you.

What Questions Should We Ask?


Before we start asking a SME questions out of the blue, it’s worth considering when we shouldn’t bother them. I needed to learn this the hard way when a manager at Disney got frustrated with my constant inquiries and asked me, “Bart did you try looking it up first?!” Having learned that lesson the hard way, my sanity check now is to ask myself, “Can I Google this or look it up in an internal document somewhere?” If the answer is yes, don’t bother the SME. This is a matter of doing your homework to some extent: learning the nomenclature, the flow of technology in your area of work, and the ever-present (at least in the space business) list of acronyms. It took me a good six months to fully absorb the acronyms used at NASA. But the effort is worth it because learning the basics of your SME’s language helps you in several ways:

  1. It prevents you from asking stupid questions (“What’s an engine?”).
  2. It enables you to understand the answers the SME is giving you.
  3. It allows you to get past all the little questions, and get to the more important and interesting questions your SME can answer best.
  4. I thought about this one just now: Your SME is more likely to take you seriously because you’ve taken the time to learn his/her business and to get things right.

So what are those more interesting questions?

  • The how or why behind particular technical decisions.
  • Localized knowledge: how do they do or think about things at Marshall Space Flight Center differently from how they do them Kennedy Space Center?
  • Networking/referrals to other sources: “Hey, Phil! Who worked on the aerospike engine for the X-33?”
  • Sanity checks/clarifications of content you’ve written based on their work/interview.

Concluding Deep Thoughts

I love my job. Technical writing is a constant opportunity to learn things you never knew from some very interesting people who are a lot smarter than you. They aren’t always as nice as they could be–and actually most of them are happy to share their knowledge with you–but if you can stay humble enough to admit that you don’t know everything, working with SMEs is pretty easy. They add value by providing depth and context to what you write. You add value by translating what they share into the clearest, most effective prose you can so that your work can go forward. And if you can get past some occasional conflicts of personality, technical writing really is the most interesting job in the world.


My current employer’s primary method of communicating is to call me up or drag me into a room with a white board and do a brain dump for an hour. I then go back to my desk, translate what I’ve heard, and email the document to him for a sanity check. It’s a good system for him, and he appreciates my ability to translate Jasonish into English. Jason also doesn’t like me to use any more than five major points (which reminds me: he mentioned in passing yesterday that he wants me to write a white paper on the “rule of five” when I get a chance). In that spirit, allow me to close with these final five reminders when dealing with SMEs:

  • Give and expect respect.
  • Establish and follow protocol and etiquette.
  • Communicate with them as they would like to communicate.
  • Do your homework first so you can ask better questions.
  • Listen to your SMEs – write clearly and correctly with the best words possible so that you’re both adding your best value.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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  1. Pingback: 2018 STC Summit: Attendee Comments Re: the Technical Writing Book | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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