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5 BEST WAYS TO TACKLE AN UNRESPONSIVE SUBJECT-MATTER EXPERT

Technical writers! To the outside world, it may seem you’re experts-above-all, who know a technical area inside-out, every nook and cranny, and write this knowledge down in understandable English. Those who actually do the job know very well that this is partly true; technical writers have broad technical knowledge, but their expert knowledge often comes from subject-matter experts (SMEs).

However, usually SMEs and technical writers work in separate teams and they have occasional contacts. Often, their schedules don’t overlap, tasks and targets are different, and generally friction happens. For technical writers, SMEs can be difficult to catch, and questions, requests, or proposals are met with dead silence or a dismissive “Fine.” with a passive-aggressive full-stop.

 

“Why be an expert if you have an SME around?” Well, better don’t trust Roll Safe on this one

 

In this text, I’ll guide you through the topic of SMEs and your relationship with them. Even if you’re not a technical writer but you still work with experts who shed light on your work – for instance, as a technical translator, you’ll find a trick or two on how to successfully gain info from them.

Grab something to drink and enjoy the journey!

Who are SMEs?

Subject-matter experts are one of many sources that technical writers have at their disposal to deliver a technical text. SMEs can be engineers, developers, quality assurance engineers, product owners, customer support, or UX designers. They have an in-depth technical knowledge of the subject but they may not have the linguistic skills necessary to create technical documentation that’s clear and helpful to end-users. In a way, technical writers are translators who translate SMEs’ engineerese to userese.

Generally, SMEs are busy people. They code; they make calls; they clear up technical conundrums. This makes them often unavailable to technical writers at the hour of need.

Imagine this. Time’s ticking. It’s Tuesday and you’ve got to finish a section of a manual by Friday. Your memo says “Describe new features so users can make it work” and that’s that. Your SME’s been uncooperative. Your emails must have landed in spam because you’ve got no replies. Your DMs were met with “Yeah, thanks, I’ll look into it ASAP” and apparently the “as possible” part lies in another possible world. What’s worse, your SME is always as slippery as an eel in a barrel of oil: Jack from their team says today they’re off to a rock concert; tomorrow they’ve got a doctor’s appointment. On Thursday the SME has a four-hour meeting with Karen from HR and on Friday… they’re busy but you don’t know with what and you’ll have run out of time anyway.

How to avoid such a situation?

How to tackle an unresponsive SME?

Tackling Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
Of course, I don’t mean tackling in this sense… Or do I?

1. Work from the Basics

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and so your relationship with the SME shouldn’t be built only when something nasty hits the fan. Be a decent human being: try to maintain a good and friendly relationship, both on the professional and person-to-person level. Talk about your hobbies and interests; go to lunch together; have a chat during a coffee break; do some sports, like rugby above!

Of course, in the pandemic (or post-pandemic) world many of those activities may be difficult. People tend to work more from home and it’s harder to catch each other at the office. But even during video calls or while chatting on Slack or anywhere else you can always show your human side and not be a professional bore.

Another thing you can do is to offer them help with things you know you are better than them. For example, they have to make a presentation about the product you both work on, so you can help them with linguistic review to smooth rough grammatical edges and polish the style. A word of caution here: you’ve got to establish clear boundaries as to what can you help them with and what would exceed your goodwill. You don’t want to become their minion to do every dirty job, as you’ve got your own tasks to take care of. If you help your SME every now and then, it’s fine. Try to establish a “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” relationship.

It’s politeness 101, but remember to be kind and well-mannered. If your SME helped you out, say thanks to them. If they’ve shared some great ideas, appreciate that. Even if they chipped in and it didn’t work out in the end, also welcome their time and effort. Remember, you create a team, so act like it and pat them on their back. Your SME is not your competitor.

Generally put, what you don’t want to achieve is the SME reacting to your email like “Gee, Brad the technical writer is again after me, send help!” If you establish a friendly relationship, your SME will be more likely to stay in touch with you also professionally, so they’ll think “Oh, Brad the technical writer’s got some questions, let’s see how I may help”.

2. Be Communicative

Congratulations, you’ve got some rapport with your SME. But this is just the beginning: Even if you become BFFs, it won’t do you any good to stay silent for days on end and flood your SME with a huge question list just before the deadline.

So, be communicative!

Learn what your SME’s communication preferences are. Do they prefer calls, emails, a messaging app, or face-to-face meetings? What are the rituals of the team they work in, so you can catch up with them on their ground? How do they want to share their expertise: by answering your questions, reviewing your concepts and early versions, or providing you with their own ideas for documentation?

It’s also a good idea to be close to your SME. At the office, you may want to arrange your desk near your SME’s desk or their team’s. You can also try going to a coffee break together to ask a few questions about your current project. When online, you may ping them every now and then. It’s also worth creating your own ritual with the SME. For example, you can pick a day every week or two to be a Doc-day, when you sit together to discuss how the project is going. However, be reasonable about being close: don’t be a breather on their shoulder. You don’t want to get tagged as a creep, do you?

Coming back to help, you can call in your debt. Or just kindly ask for your SME’s help just like that. If you’re in your SME’s good books (see point one above), they’ll be more likely to offer their insight when you deal with a really difficult matter. However, don’t overuse it — don’t do unto others what you don’t want others do unto you.

Last but not least: Don’t leave things until the very last moment. Communicate regularly with your SME, so even if there’s a force majeure event, you won’t be left alone with nothing. If you have a habit of being in touch with the SME, the problem of unresponsiveness gets minimised.

3. Take the Initiative

Anakin, you’ve got it wrong again.

 

While steps one and two are important and create a good groundwork, they’re not enough. Still, more needs to be done.

You’ve got to take the initiative. Don’t wait for your SME to come around and ask, “How’s the project?” It’s for you to share your ideas and early versions with them, schedule meetings, and most importantly, ask questions first.

For example, it’s a good idea to give your SME a deadline to reply to your questions to keep them on track. Remember about a life hack here: give a shorter deadline than you actually need. You’ll have that buffer zone if they reply a day or two later, so you can still finish everything on time.

Also, you’ve got to kick your intelligence (as in Military Intelligence, Section 6) to high gear in this one. Ask your SME to share their professional Google Calendar or something similar (if they use such tools) with you. This way, you’ll know when they go on vacation, when they’ve got important calls, when you can join their meetings to jot down notes, when they take a day off… This makes scheduling meetings easier, as you can come around and say, “You’ve got Friday morning free, can we meet and talk about the project?” Even if they use a paper calendar, just stay in touch and know these things. You don’t want your SME to be offline in the middle of their hard-earned vacation when you’ve got some serious problems to solve with the documentation, because you didn’t do it earlier and failed to learn when they’re away.

However, a word of caution here. SMEs in general are busy, so don’t pester them with everything all the time. Don’t send an angry email or complain if they fail to reply to your email, they reschedule a meeting, or they answer only half of your questions. A half is better than nothing. Things happen in life, so your email may have just slipped off their mind or they may be putting out fires in their own tasks. As long as the communication is regular and on good terms, you’ve got nothing to worry. Stick to your common sense and ask if you can solve current issues some other time, some other way, bearing in mind the overall schedule of the project.

4. Be Prepared

This combines points two and three. When you’re communicative and you show initiative, as part of maintaining a good relationship, come prepared when you meet your SME.

First of all, create an agenda. This may sound as if you’re about to go to a meeting of an executive board, but sending a brief of what you want to cover will save everyone a lot of trouble. Your SME can also come prepared to the meeting.

Secondly, prepare questions beforehand and do some research. Instead of “How does this work?”, you’ll present yourself better when you say “In an earlier version, I’ve found this to work like this; is this still true? What changed?” As I wrote above, it’s also good to have some ideas and share early versions. If you update a document, create a version with notes so you can discuss them one by one. If relevant, attach the most important questions to the agenda and send them before the meeting.

Thirdly, when the SME shows you something, take notes. A lot of notes. Don’t be shy and ask if you can record your meeting or the video call. It’s better to do this than come back with matters that slipped your attention during the presentation.

Fourthly, try to reiterate what your SME has just said or stated in the meeting. You can go on like this “I just want to be sure I’ve got it right…” or “So, this is supposed to be like this and work like that”. If your SME really wants to know what’s going on, you can always send minutes from the meeting, where you sum up all the issues that have been addressed and their solutions.

All of the above boils down to this: value their time. Don’t ask them questions to which you can find definitive answers yourself. If possible, seek answers elsewhere, propose a solution, and just ask if it’s good or bad. Another thing you should avoid at all costs is to ask the same questions again because you didn’t pay attention or didn’t jot their reply down. This also takes away valuable time, yours and theirs. Also, don’t ask them to review every sentence you’ve just typed. If they’re to review your work, send a larger chunk of text and note where the problems are. Basically, don’t demand from them to do your job. If you come prepared, you’ll surely be taken seriously, you’ll get better responses, and you’ll stay in your SME’s good books.

5. If Push Comes to Shove…

Let’s hope it never gets to this, even metaphorically

You’ve done your best but despite being friendly, communicative, prepared, and full of initiative, your SME is still unresponsive. Why? Well, they can be snowed under their own work. They may have some personal problems. They may view technical writers as the lesser folk who don’t require their attention. Or you two may just don’t get along; it happens. So, what to do then?

First, try not to take it personally and maintain professional composure. Ask them what the problem is. If they keep ghosting you, again, use your MI6-sense. Try to find out indirectly what may be the reason they are — or have become — unresponsive. You can also remind your SME that you’re in the same boat that must reach its port of destination. Or put it in the corporate speak: the company won’t deliver if you both don’t deliver.

The second solution is riskier. If you still can’t get anything from your SME, make sh…, I mean, stuff up. Do as much as possible on your own with your own resources and send it to your SME. Just attract their attention. Even if they come storming your door asking what the hell they’ve just read or they send an angry email with scathing corrections, well, congratulations; you’ve got your feedback and you can carry on with your part of work. You may by the way tell them you tried contacting them and ask how you should have approached them. But don’t be smug about it.

Third solution should be used as a last resort: Escalate the problem to higher echelons. Nobody wants to have this “Hey, you’ve got a minute?” talk with their manager, but if your SME is obstinate in not communicating with you and it impedes your work and delivering the whole project, something drastic must be done.

Conclusion

I know it’s a cliché but carrying on with these guidelines can put you through work with even the most unresponsive SMEs

 

Tackling an unresponsive SME isn’t something you can do over a week. It’s a process that starts right from the moment you two work together. It needs consistency, patience, professionalism, and savviness in your interpersonal skills. If you are friendly and communicative, if you take the initiative and come prepared, you’ll work wonders and, in all likelihood, you won’t have to use step five of this article.

As a final piece of advice, just remember: respect your SME, or actually everyone you work with. The rest will come naturally.

Paweł

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The article was written as a homework for Technical Communication post-graduate studies at Vistula University. I’d like to thank Tomasz Prus for many useful points that he shared on the SME with us during lectures and invaluable feedback to the first draft of this article.

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