The Good Parts About Working With SMEs

This blog was written in response to a survey comment. One survey respondent said that “Interactive skills and depth of listening even appear unpleasant.” Wow. I guess he had a point: I’ve often shared some of my “horror stories” when dealing with subject-matter experts (SMEs). My intention is (usually) to show how technical writers can make our lives more difficult by testing the patience of an eminent/busy SME by not being prepared before we ask them questions. Today I’ll write about some of the bright sides of dealing with the “experts.” It’s not all bad, really!

As a writer for NASA, Spaceflight Insider, Space.com, Ad Astra, Zero Point Frontiers, and other publications, it’s been my good fortune to interview, write for, or edit for some of some very bright people in the space and technology industries. These individuals include (among others) David Anderson, Barbara Cohen, Steve Cook, Mary Lynne Dittmar, Dan Dumbacher, Jeff Foust, Jeff Greason, Jason Hundley, Mike Griffin, Les Johnson, Ray Kurzweil, Bruce Mackenzie, Todd May, Tim Pickens, Carolyn Porco, Phil Sumrall, Paul Spudis, George Whitesides, and Robert Zubrin,

The point is not to name drop, but to give you some insight into why I’ve enjoyed my chosen career. It’s one thing to read what these people say in the news, it’s another to talk with them directly, pick their brains, and get wisdom from people who are actually advancing the state of the art in their particular field. They’re doing exciting things and working on difficult problems that interest me and make my content exciting to write.

I would also say that, given the prominent positions these people have achieved, they have learned the importance of making their difficult subject matter accessible to members of the public. They can speak by analogy or clarify complex subjects in ways that don’t require equations. They help me learn.

On other occasions, these individuals have shared their visions of what the future of their business might be like: what we might do, where we might go, and what those discoveries might mean for humanity. The ideas in their minds have the virtue of expanding my own horizons. Those sorts of discussions are exhilarating for a space geek like me. It’s an opportunity to hear what the future might be like and what sorts of wonders we might find there.

This is not to say it’s always easy to work around serious subject matter experts. Often due to my English-focused education, I have to ask them to repeat some things or ask them to “bring it down a level” until what they’re saying makes sense to me. That’s my problem, not theirs. But again, it’s a privilege to obtain information from SMEs, and I make my best effort to ask pertinent questions that get the most information possible from them without wasting their time.

If you’re sincerely interested in your content, talking to the people on the leading edge of making that content a reality, discussions with SMEs can be rewarding and fascinating. And, as an extra bonus, those discussions make your writing that much better because it is informed by people who are the experts in what they do.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to The Good Parts About Working With SMEs

  1. “Bring is down a level!” Ha ha. I like that. I have been told on more than on occasion “that’s a stupid question” when I bring it down (perhaps why certain SMEs don’t write the documentation). However, we have audiences that will ask similar questions and we are their voice. Sometimes you need a tough skin, but as long as we keep our eye on our goal (delivering stellar documentation), it’s worth it.

  2. Larry Kunz says:

    Thanks for pointing out that working with SMEs can be one the best parts of our job. Alan Alda, in If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, talks about interviewing scientists as the host of PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers. His best results came when he chatted with the scientists person to person, rather than interviewing them, and when he asked them to tell stories about their research and their discoveries.

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