Play Nice With an SME


The Subject Matter Expert. I might be one of the few, but I find it difficult to communicate with them. I already established this in my previous post. The reality is that as a technical writer, we will always have to interact with the SME. Over my career, I have come up with tips to approach and interact with an SME in order to obtain the necessary information.

Before Approaching an SME

1.) Remember that the software you are testing and documenting is his or her “baby.” Long hours were put into this project and most of the time are not interested in anyone’s opinion regarding changes to their “baby.”
2.) The SME assumes that the project was programmed in a way that everyone should be able to understand it without documentation, since no one looks at it anyway.
3.) Understand there may never be a right answer to every situation. The idea is to agree.
4.) Never let the SME tell you how to write the documentation.
5.) Most SMEs I have come across do not know why something works the way it does, just that it works.

During Approach of an SME

1.) Do not be a “know-it-all” technical writer. Be someone who genuinely wants to learn how something works.
2.) Approach the SME like you are doing an interview. Have a list of short questions that are “to-the-point” so the SME can get to the answer faster.
3.) If the answer is to technical that you do not understand, ask for clarification for the end user.
4.) Quickly thank the SME for their time, but would like to get back to work while the ideas are still fresh in your mind. (Otherwise, there may be endless small talk)

How do you handle approaching an SME?

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5 thoughts on “Play Nice With an SME

  1. Very useful tips here for anybody starting out as a technical writer. Based on my experience, I would agree completely with your point about showing SMEs that you have a genuine interest in understanding how their software works. If possible, I would suggest playing around with the software to see how it works and develop a set of concrete questions based on your experience before meeting the SME. This enables you to see things from the user’s perspective and assess their information needs.

  2. Donna

    Where I work, an SME is an abbreviation for Shuttle Main Engine. And a SME, pronounced “smee,” is an acronym for subject matter expert. I wonder is SME is ever treated as an acronym elsewhere.

  3. Donna

    So SME can be an acronym (a word formed from the initial letters of the compound term) if it is pronounced “smee” or an initialism if the letters are pronounced separately as S-M-E. Your choice of the article “a” or “an” would depend on how your audience pronounces the abbreviation.

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