How to Talk to an SME

Craig Cardimon - MSG in a Bottle By Craig Cardimon, Senior Technical Writer

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs to the rest of you) are people, too. Terribly, horribly busy people that some of us need to communicate with.

Suppose a technical writer like myself needs to interview an SME about, say, new functionality that has been added to a company application. How would I proceed? Glad you asked!

Make an appointment with them. They might cancel on you a few times before you catch up with them, but take the trouble to set up an appointment anyway. If they seem reluctant to make such a commitment, respond by saying you know they’re busy and respect their time.

This usually works. If they shake their heads and say, “Just stop by,” simply ask them what day and time works best for them. When you get your answer, write it down immediately. Then create a calendar reminder for yourself.

Outline what you are going to ask beforehand. It might be wise to write out your “script” even before you try to make an appointment. Why? Suppose the SME says, “Right now works for me. Are you ready?” You want to say, “That’s great! I’m ready now, too.”

You don’t want to have to say, “Now’s not a good time for me.” You will have blown your chance to make a fantastic impression on the SME. You want to know the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the interview topic.

I usually demonstrate my level of preparedness by knocking on the SME’s office door while holding my smartphone (with voice recorder at the ready) as well as notepad and at least two pens. Why two? In case one runs dry in the middle of the interview. I picked up this trick while working as a reporter for the school newspaper in college. Borrowing a writing instrument from your subject looks unprofessional.

Now, about that voice recorder…..Talk the SME into letting you use a recorder. I tell them that I can capture everything they say the FIRST time, and won’t have to bother them later for anything but clarification. They won’t have to repeat themselves. I haven’t had an SME turn me down yet.

Speaking about clarification, ask the SME if it’s okay if you clarify any sticking points that crop up later. Points of confusion always appear, so plan for them now. Something you understand when the SME explains it will immediately become muddy when you get back to your desk and look at your notes.
When you’re concluding the interview, thank the SME for their time and ask if they would like to see your finished transcript of the interview before you put it in the documentation. If they say they trust you, meaning they want to get on with their day, ask them if they would like to review the transcript for technical accuracy, because they’re the expert, and you aren’t. They usually agree. If they don’t, send them a copy anyway, mentioning that it’s for their convenience so they know what they said, and remember to thank them again for their time.

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