Tag Archives: SMEs

Eluding the curse of knowledge

This week’s Tighten This! game exposed a pitfall that good technical writers learn to identify and avoid: the curse of knowledge. Let’s talk about how that plays out in our day-to-day work.

two heads explaining and thinking differentlyThe curse of knowledge strikes when we become experts in the subject we’re describing, and we forget that others — especially our readers — don’t share our expertise. What’s become obvious to us, isn’t at all obvious to them.

Our subject-matter experts have the curse of knowledge. Our readers count on our not having it.

Mark Baker says that the antidote to the curse of knowledge is domain awareness:

Domain awareness means not only knowing the subject matter of your domain well, but also understanding your domain as a domain and its place in the universe. It is only in a state of domain awareness that you act as a useful and reliable tour guide to your domain.

In practical terms this means putting your subject matter into the context of what your readers already know. It means giving them stories and signposts so to help them relate the new ideas and new skills to what they already know..

As you move from novice to expert, you must never forget that your readers need those stories and signposts.

Day in and day out, how can you elude the trap of the curse of knowledge? Continue reading

What writers need — and don’t need — from SMEs

writer_keys.jpgEver hear a subject-matter expert (SME) complain that they have to do too much of the technical writer’s job for them? I know I have.

I’m afraid that we technical writers have contributed to this attitude, by being lazy and by not helping them help us.

But it’s not all our fault. Sometimes the SME simply doesn’t understand what’s expected of them, and what isn’t.

To help with that, I’ve compiled a list for SMEs of the things your technical writers need from you. (If you’re a technical writer, this list is for you too. Use it to make sure your SMEs are giving you what you need.) Continue reading

4 ways to get the most out of your SMEs

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.

Sumo wrestlers in competitionWhen 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. Continue reading