In the valiant pursuit of providing excellent product help and other documents, just about every technical communicator out there works with subject matter experts (SMEs). Talking to experts is a normal part of the research for writing a technical document. SMEs are an invaluable resource, but can be challenging to work with sometimes. After all, whatever makes them experts in the first place has the potential to also make them:
- Very busy and hard to get in contact with
- Frustrated with people who don’t already understand the subject matter
- Downright arrogant
My own favorite SME quotes come from back when I was in college. I wrote technical manuals for a high-energy physics lab on campus. Once, after reading my first draft of a document about a piece of machinery in the lab, my supervisor told me, “It’s clear you don’t understand this at all.” That was harsh, but not really rude (and certainly not untrue). It was another time, when a grad student said to me, “I can’t understand why you’re having trouble with this; it’s trivial” that I really got to experience that I’m-too-smart-and-busy-to-bother-with-insects-like-you attitude that some technical writers deal with every day.
Fortunately, there are approaches that you, the technical communicator, can take into your interactions with SMEs to encourage responsiveness and respectfulness, even though you probably don’t have any actual authority over your SMEs.
Prerequisite: be a writer SMEs want to work with
Before you can start pulling the levers of motivating your SMEs, there are a few things you need to do to prepare yourself.
Do some research
If you go into a meeting with a developer and open up the conversation with “What’s a A-P-I?” you’re just asking to not be taken seriously. The internet is at your fingertips: find out something about your topic before you talk to the SME. You don’t have to do 20 hours of research, but taking 15 minutes to define terms, figure out what acronyms stand for, and think about how this information probably relates to your project will make your SME feel like you’re someone worth talking to.
Prepare an agenda
“Tell me about the feature,” is a pretty good way to start the conversation, but if that’s where your meeting planning ends, then you’re in trouble. You should be able to structure the conversation with the specific questions you’re looking to answer. Having a well-organized hit list of information you’re looking for communicates that you’re organized and efficient and won’t be sucking up all the SME’s time.
Know your value
It’s an unfortunate truth that some SMEs don’t appreciate the value of what you do. So you had better be confident in the value of what you do and the benefit you bring to customers. Otherwise, you’ll have no chance of getting the information you need.
Strategy 1: It’s you and me against the problem
When you’re not the person who can fire someone, getting into a direct conflict with your SME is unlikely to be a successful motivation tactic. In fact, even if you could fire the SME, a battle of wills is rarely productive. Rather than thinking of conflicts as “you against me,” try to think of them as “you and me against the problem.” For example,
You against me
I told you I needed those specifications yesterday. Where are they?
This kind of confrontational comment invites the SME to be defensive and resist giving you the information even more. At the end of this interaction, you and the SME feel angry and let down.
You and me against the problem
I need to have this document turned in on Thursday, so I really need to see the specs today to have time to write it up. Can you help me out here?
This kind of comment invites the SME to empathize with your situation and step up to be helpful. Most people like to be helpful and afterward feel good about themselves. At the end of this interaction, the SME is more likely to want to help you again.
Early in my career, I would have bristled at letting an SME off the hook with a tactic like this. After all, the SME was in the wrong not to have given me the specs in the first place. As I’ve moved through my career, however, I’ve come to realize that I get more done if I forego assigning blame and instead focus on building relationships to get more stuff done.
Strategy 2: I speak your language
Different people are in business for different reasons. Fortunately you are an expert in audience analysis and can frame your interactions so they call on what the SME values. For example,
The pursuit of truth and beauty
Some people are motivated by a sense of “what is right” and “how things should be.” In my experience, many front-line software developers are like this. So, if I am requesting that changes be made to a piece of software, I would be likely to talk about how the changes will contribute to the integrity of the software as a whole and call on the developer’s pride in creating something that so completely suits the need of the user.
Top line revenue or bottom line profits
On the other hand, calling for putting more hours of work into a UI for the sake of an elegant user experience doesn’t inspire someone who cares about growing the business. With this crowd, I’d be more likely to highlight how the changes will increase customer satisfaction, which will result in more upsells. The promise of high ROI makes the request make sense to a person motivated this way.
Do it right the first time
Some people (and I’d put myself in this crowd) are inspired to action by the promise of consistency, automation, and never having to touch something again because you did it right the first time. For people of this ilk, I’d frame a request for software changes by demonstrating how they improve the consistency of the application and reduce the likelihood of customers reporting bugs in the future.
Earlier in my career, I might have disdained of using tactics like this, thinking it was manipulative. But there’s nothing manipulative about understanding the person you’re talking to and presenting them information that’s important to them. That is, in fact, the first rule of all good technical communication.
Strategy 3: I appreciate you
In life, when a person gives you something, you say thank you. It doesn’t matter if it’s something unexpected, like a care package arriving in the mail, or something compulsory, like the barista handing you the coffee you already paid for. “Thank you” is shorthand for, “this thing you’ve provided is welcome and I would like you to continue providing it in the future.” Without a thank you, the giver is in the dark about whether the thing they’ve provided is welcome.
Consistently thanking your SME makes it clear that collaboration is welcome, and when it is clear that collaboration is welcome, SMEs may begin providing it to you even when you don’t ask for it, which expands your influence.
In addition to thanking your SME for their time, their information, or whatever they provide, look at other opportunities to show your appreciation. Companies often have awards you can nominate people for, or you can start your own awards, like I did with my department. Telling your SME’s boss what a big difference it made to you to have the SME’s time is often a fruitful move as well.
Earlier in my career, I might have balked at saying thank you so much, especially if I felt like I had to struggle for information I was entitled to. But in business, as in life, being the bigger person and showing good manners is always the path to success and fulfillment.
To sum up
In the workplace, people are motivated to make a difference and to be recognized as experts. When you put yourself in the SMEs’ shoes and think of ways you can make it easy for them to feel like they’ve made a difference and raised their esteem, then getting buy-in becomes more and more natural.
What tips do you have for motivating your peers at work?