8 Tips for Successfully Working with Subject Matter Experts

By George Slaughter

To be successful, writers must consult with subject matter experts (SMEs). Some SMEs are nearby, while others are in other countries. Some speak in engineer-speak, while others take pride in extensively rewriting your drafts because they think of themselves as writers. Some are easily available, while others always seem to be away from their desk.

Regardless of your situation, here are some tips for successfully working with SMEs.

1. Do your homework.

Often the answers to your questions are in the change forms, engineering reports, marketing specs, project plans, or other material on the team Intranet site (or distributed during a team meeting). Check these out first.

2. Know who to ask.

Every product team has one or two members who become your go-to people. (Sometimes they are assigned this role, sometimes not.) Go to these people with your questions first. If they don’t immediately know the answer, they know who else on the team would know…and they can help grease the tracks for you to ask those people.

3. Know what to ask.

Make it easier for the SME by doing your homework first. For instance, you might ask, “The engineering specs say the software will have certain functionality. Yet the change request from last week’s meeting say that this functionality will be different. Can you please explain the differences?”

4. Know when to ask.

Check your SME’s schedule to see when it would be a good time to visit. In some cases, it’s OK to ask your questions during team meetings. Usually, however, it’s best to ask when in a one-on-one situation, thereby not tying up everyone else’s time.

5. Know how to ask.

Personal meetings are best because of the immediacy of feedback. In addition, the tone and inflection of one’s voice, along with nonverbal gestures, promote faster and greater understanding. Phone calls are second best for all these reasons except for nonverbal gestures. Instant messaging software, such as Microsoft Lync or Yahoo Messenger, helps ensure immediacy of feedback. While e-mail is often the only option, it is not always the best option because feedback isn’t immediate, and others who have no role in the conversation are often included, which can lead both to misunderstandings and unwanted delays for clarification.

6. Know when and how to bribe.

When posting your drafts for review, think of an incentive to get people to return their feedback to you more quickly. What you bribe with depends on the team and what you’re willing to provide. Perhaps you could bring cookies or other refreshments to the review meeting.

7. Know when and how to bludgeon.

Sometimes bribery doesn’t work and you must resort to other, arguably devious tactics. If you find it necessary to bludgeon your SMEs, let your project manager–or someone with supervisory authority–do the deed.

8. Building a rapport helps.

For example, if your SME spends his weekends playing in a rock-and-roll band, learn about the band. Maybe you could take in a show. One SME I know is a loyal Auburn University football fan. Another SME on the same team is a loyal fan of Auburn’s arch-rival, the University of Alabama. When I approach one or the other, I break the ice by cheering or commiserating how their team fared.

Follow these tips to make things easier for your SMEs, whose feedback will make things easier for you when creating your documentation deliverables.

About the Author

George Slaughter is a writer, editor, and content strategist. His web site is georgeslaughter.com.