For as long as I can remember, and probably from time immemorial, we technical communicators have struggled in our relationships with subject-matter experts (SMEs). Sometimes the results are humorous. Often they’re painful.
When I teach Tech Comm at Duke University, I use this photo of sumo wrestlers to illustrate the struggle. Yet I also hasten to assure my students that it’s not always this way — nor does it have to be.
How can you work with your SMEs to increase the degree of cooperation and limit the pushing and shoving? Here are four principles that’ve helped me.
1. Remember that SMEs are people too.
Do you stereotype your SMEs as geeks, as automatons, or as wet blankets? If so, you’re selling them short. They’re interested in the same kinds of things you’re interested in.
If talking with my SME about his golf game will make him more comfortable working with me, that’s what I’ll do. Even though I don’t care for golf. I won’t pass up the chance to connect through something that he’s interested in.
Quite often, in fact, your SMEs are very interested — to the point of being passionate — in the work they do. Which leads me to the second principle.
2. SMEs are more likely to value what you do, when they see that you value what they do.
Never, ever make disparaging comments about the product or about the engineers, programmers, and others who create it. (Of course you can suggest ways to make the product better or easier to use. Just do it in a constructive way.)
Don’t waste your SME’s time with questions you could answer by reading the design specs or simply by listening during a scrum meeting. Instead, do your homework before you go to talk with your SME. When they see that you respect the project, and that you respect them as well, doors will open for you.
3. Never give SMEs a reason to question the value of your documentation.
This is the flip side of #2.
It’s a common — and mostly stereotypical — belief among technical communicators that SMEs hold our work in contempt. Don’t give your SMEs a chance to do that. Every draft should represent your best work: no typos, no spelling mistakes, no sloppy formatting. Let your SMEs see that you value your work as much as they value theirs.
4. Make your SMEs’ jobs as easy as possible.
When you schedule a meeting, set an agenda and — if possible — send a list of questions in advance. That way, the SME can come prepared and get right down to business.
When it’s time for reviews, make it clear exactly what you want the SMEs to review. Focus their attention on specific sections or topics; don’t just throw a 300-page book at them and ask for feedback.
Finally, make sure everyone agrees to the review process (schedules and methodologies) in advance. Make sure the review tools — wikis, PDF comments, whatever — are ones the SMEs are comfortable working with.
What principles can you add to the list? If you’ve ever been in the role of SME to a technical communicator, what insights can you add from the SME’s point of view?
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