If you’ve been in the tech communication field for any length of time, you have probably heard the phrase, “baking brownies for the SME.” While sometimes it is meant literally, often it means “to make friends with the subject matter experts” or to “get subject matter experts to talk to you and give you the information you need to create the best documentation you can create, without having them resent you.”
Talking to Subject Matter Experts
The first thing to remember when you interview a SME is simply that you are also an expert in your subject. Your subject is documentation. Never forget that you are the expert at distilling the information given to you down into a format your end user needs. Note that your end user may not be the end user. You may be writing for middle management, or other engineers, or people with no experience whatsoever. This is where your “audience identification” stage comes in.
So. you are an expert in your field (writing), but you probably don’t have the same expertise as your SME. But before you meet with her, please do your research. You should have a bit of knowledge prior to going in. The first rule to working with SMEs is “Don’t waste their time.” Your SME has other things to do than talk to you.
How to Prepare
Always go prepared into an interview or chat with an SME. Know who your audience will be, and have a general idea of what needs to be in your documentation.
Schedule your meeting. This gives the SME time to prepare as well. And keeps you from interrupting his workflow. Think about how much you appreciate it when you’re deep in the writing and someone interrupts you to demand non-related information. Give others the same respect you expect.
I prefer to have as much of the doc outlined (and maybe even written as draft) before I go talk to the SME. That way I have specific ideas about where I need help, confirmation, or just plain information about how the thing I’m documenting works.
So go in with a list. Be clear, and take up as little of your SME’s time as humanly possible.
After the Interview
Be aware that you will probably need more than one meeting. Not always, but often. Thank the SME before you leave. Then send a thank you email or a hard copy thank you note. Make sure you communicate to your SME how much you appreciate her taking time out of her busy day to talk to you. Sometimes this even involves baking non-metaphorical brownies. Just make sure your SME isn’t allergic to chocolate!