Larry Kunz on Working with Subject Matter Experts

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I’m Dr. Ryan Weber at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and I’m very excited to welcome to the podcast today Larry Kunz, who is a blogger who runs Leading Technical Communication. And in particular, I’ve invited him here to talk about a recent post of his called “Four Ways to Get the Most Out of Your SME’s”. He’ll talk with us about working with subject matter experts, which is always a topic that I get a lot of questions about. So, I’m excited to hear his perspective.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Well thank you again so much for joining us on the podcast Larry. I really enjoyed your recent post about “Four Ways to Get the Most Out of Your SME’s,” and I just wanted to talk with you a little more about how technical communicators can really work effectively with SME’s. And I wanted to start, you know in your blog post, you use the image of sumo wrestlers as a metaphor for the writer – SME relationship, and so why did you choose this metaphor and what does it reveal about the relationship?

[Larry Kunz] Well it’s more tongue and cheek than anything else because I know that a lot of technical communicators do struggle with their relationship with SME’s, but it does reveal that often the writer and the SME have very different goals and sometimes these goals come into conflict. The SME is trying to get a product out the door, whether it’s a piece of software or a piece of machinery or whatever, a research proposal, and is probably evaluated on how well he or she does that.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] And the writer of course is trying to create the documentation, needs the SME’s help, often at a time when the SME is very busy and really the key is both parties need to be a little more sensitive to each other. We need to treat SME’s with consideration as we would want to be treated ourselves and bottom-line, act like a professional.

[Weber] So, what are, you already alluded to this, but what are some of the biggest challenges of working with SME’s?

[Kunz] Well I can think of three. One of them is finding the right SME. A lot of SME’s know things but they can’t explain it in a way that makes sense to the reader of our documentation. Other’s and this is very tricky, other’s think they know things and are happy to explain it, but they don’t really have the knowledge or the authority

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] And you end up with information that’s incomplete or inaccurate. The trick is to, to get to know the SME’s and then their skills and understand who has the knowledge and the authority and the ability to explain things in a way that, that you can use that information. And of course, cultivate relationships with those folks. Another challenge we see more and more is that the SME’s are not located where we are.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] We’re working remotely, we’re working at home, the SME’s might be in another country, and so you don’t have that personal relationship that you might have if they’re just down the hall. You’re just a name on an email or a voice on the phone and it’s that much more difficult to get the SME’s attention and-and get their respect quite frankly.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] And so you have to work a little harder to do that. And finally, there’s the challenge where the comments and information you do get from SME’s, especially during reviews, are just not helpful. So, the way around that is to make sure the review is tightly focused, make sure you tell the SME, “I need you to look at this thing in particular.” Don’t just drop the whole user’s guide on their desk, but say, “I want you to look at the-the installation chapter because you’re the expert on installation, and these are the kinds of comments I’m looking for. I haven’t formatted it yet, so don’t worry about the right margin running off or something like that but give me comments on the technical accuracy.” So, if you can guide them into what they’re looking at and what kind of feedback you need, that relaxes them and of course it really increased the odds that you’re going to get good feedback from your SME.

[Weber] Good. That’s great advice-is really focusing and telling them exactly what you want out of the feedback session. What other strategies do you have for developing good interview questions to get information from the SME?

[Kunz] Well, practice your interviewing technique. Some technical communicators are more gifted at this than others, but our job is very much like that of a news reported and if that’s not something you’re comfortable with, work on your technique. Practice it with friends and colleagues, asking questions and listening to the information and asking follow-up questions. And a big, big part of that of course is preparation.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] Before the interview, first decide exactly what it is you need to know so that you can focus your questions properly and second, do your homework. Never go into an SME meeting and say, “Well gee I’ve never seen these or interface, why don’t you tell me about it?” That’s an insult to them honestly and it shows that you are something less than professional.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] So that’s really a big thing for me. Learn as much as you can beforehand so that you can ask intelligent questions, but then of course do listen to what the SME is saying because they’re going to tell you things that you didn’t know before. And finally, have confidence in yourself because you’ll need to ask follow-up questions and so develop the skill of doing that and have confidence in your own knowledge and your own expertise so that you can frame those questions in a-in an intelligent way.

[Weber] Yeah and a lot of this goes back to-I like something you said earlier about sort of earning, gaining the respect of the SME. And you know you’d mentioned doing your homework in advance and focusing the interviews and review sessions very tightly so that they’re-that they know exactly what’s expected. Are there other ways you can earn an SME’s respect?

[Kunz] Yes. First of all you can show them respect by, by respecting their time. Let them know exactly what the scope of the interview is going to be. Get right to the point so that they appreciate you’re not wasting their time. Help the SME understand your role, the value that you bring. More and more SME’s understand that the documentation is a critical part of the project, but not all of them do and some of them have a very condescending view toward technical writers, English majors, that sort of thing.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] If that’s the case, try to help them understand what it is you’re doing and emphasize the user needs to know this so that they can make the most out of the program or the system. And finally, don’t ever give the SME an opportunity to question your professionalism and by that I mean giving them drafts that haven’t been proof read. Any sort of sloppiness, totally unacceptable if you’re dealing with the SME. Make sure the SME see that you take your job seriously and that’ll help them take you seriously.

[Weber] Very good, very good. This is all really helpful information. What other kinds of advice do you have for writers who work with SME’s? How can you get the most out of this relationship and really develop an effective working relationship?

[Kunz] Well I did mention the personal touch. Again, that’s harder now that we work remotely, but if–if you are located near your SME or if you have a chance to talk with them frequently, get to know a little bit about them as a person. And you know if you the SME wants to talk about his golf game; I don’t care for golf.

[Weber] Right.

[Kunz] But if he wants to talk about it and take five or ten minutes to tell me about his last round of golf, I’m happy to hear that because it makes-it makes the relationship a little bit more comfortable and a little more human. And finally, scratch their back. They are perhaps writing system specs, if they’re software engineers, they may be writing error messages that could use an edit, or that could use a review for how well they suit the user of the product. Offer to edit those messages. Offer to do a usability test of the user interface, those sorts of things that help them in their job and that helps them to see that you have skills that are useful and of course it helps them to get their work done in a higher quality fashion. So, you scratching their back, they’ll be more likely to scratch yours.

[Weber] Yeah, good; makes sense, again that sounds like another opportunity too as you’ve said to show your skills, show you can do. Prove value to the organization, so.

[Kunz] I know I’ve had some SME who’ve really, really appreciated that. There were quite a few of them saying, “Thank you,” so I know it means a lot to them and to me it’s a small thing to edit ten error messages, but I understand that it’s something that they really find helpful.

[Weber] Yeah and you’ve emphasized you know having some understanding of how overwhelmed the SME is with their work, how they’re as stressed out and under pressure as we are to produce what they’re trying to produce. So, it seems like that empathy is important as well.

[Kunz] Yes, yes. That’s a really good point. I like the way you said that.

[Weber] Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking this time to do the interview to share your expertise with us. And again, your blog is Leading Technical Communication, correct?

[Kunz] That’s right.

[Weber] Great, is there anything else that you do that you’d like to tell us about? I don’t know-.

[Kunz] Not off hand. I do speak at STC events and Writers UA and things like that sometimes. I do have some slide decks on SlideShare, including at least one on this topic and I encourage people to, to look for it there.

[Weber] Alright, well thank you very much Larry, I really appreciate it.

[Kunz] You’re welcome Ryan and look forward to maybe working with you again.

[Weber] Sounds-.

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Episode 7