The ability to work with SMEs efficiently makes a huge difference in technical writing. A lot of things like depth, clarity, and precision of descriptions in user manuals depend on how well you communicate your requests to an SME and how successful you are at interpreting and follow-up questions.
Today, we will try to come up with a perfect scenario of tech writer/SME communication. It is clear that both parties are equally responsible for the outcome, but taking what you can into your own hands and fixing up the process is a good choice.
How to Ask the Right Questions
To make talking to an SME more efficient, you need to be prepared. Feel free to use these tips to plan out your best SME interview yet:
- Set the goals. The initial preparation point for any interview is to clearly understand what you need to see as an outcome. Formulate the main purpose and share it with the SME so they know what to expect and which material to revise. Oftentimes you can have several major things in mind you would like to consult an SME about. And this is fine, too. Make sure to mentally separate these things and never jump back and forth between them. It is one thing at a time.
- The goals are set, it is time to plan the actual questions. Do your homework by studying the topic before going to an SME. You need to be able to understand what they are going to tell you and be able to come up with the follow-up questions. You might ask me — why do I need an SME if I can learn everything myself? Well, if you are certain you can — you don’t need one. But when you are looking for more depth, for better understanding of how something works or there’s simply no good place to learn this stuff, you go to an SME.
- Prepare to make notes during the talk. Always have a notebook, a phone, a laptop for that. You can use a speech recorder, with permission, of course. If we are talking about a video chat, again, you can record the session with permission from an SME. While the recordings are great to revise details, your written notes will help you ask the right follow-up questions and clarify stuff on the spot. Or, you can be taking notes to use in the technical writing process later.
- Lead the conversation. Slow down when you feel it is required or skip certain things. Be in full control of the communication flow to squeeze out maximum of valuable information under the given timeframe. If you are afraid of sounding rude by interrupting your opponent — rest assured, hundreds of learning courses exist that are ready to teach you awesome communicative skills. Such skills are definitely needed to be a great technical writer.
- Be an active listener. I mean, it is clear that since you are having an interview with an SME, you are already genuinely interested in the information, very much so. But, still, little phycological tricks can make the conversation flow more effortlessly. This includes:
- Eye contact (no staring though!)
- Subtle leaning forward
- Relaxed pose — no crossing hands/legs
- Brief affirmations (‘I see’, ‘sure’, ‘thank you’) head nods
- Paraphrasing sentences in response to show you understand
6. Talk over the next steps — whether another meeting should be held or what will be the most convenient way for you to reach out to them if you have questions about the current material later.
7. Thank your SME! You both have done a great job!
What I’ve written here might sound like a lot. But, in reality, we are all human beings and things do not go according to plan sometimes. Do not let this discourage you. Sharpen your communication skills, pay attention to what’s working, and keep digging in this direction — you will end up with your own patented toolset of how to communicate with SMEs to get awesome results. Thinking that being a technical writer means secluding yourself with a PC and no communication is wrong. Establishing great professional relationships with other teams and SMEs plays a huge part in successful technical communication, too!
Good luck with your technical writing!
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