by George Slaughter

To be successful, writers must consult with subject matter experts (SMEs). Some SMEs are nearby, while others are in other countries. Some speak in engineer-speak, while others take pride in extensively rewriting your drafts because they think of themselves as writers. Some are easily available, while others always seem to be away from their desk.

Regardless of your situation, the following tips can help you be successful in working with SMEs.

  • Do your homework. Often, the answers to your questions are in the change forms, engineering reports, marketing specs, project plans, or other material on the team Intranet site (or distributed during a team meeting). Review these documents before approaching the SME.
  • Know who to ask. Every product team has one or two people who become your go-to people. (Sometimes they are assigned this role, sometimes not.) Go to these people with your questions first. If they don’t immediately know the answer, they know who else on the team would know—and they can help grease the tracks for you to ask those people.
  • Know what to ask. You can demonstrate that you’ve done your homework when you share what you’ve learned as you ask the question. For instance, “The engineering specs say the software will have certain functionality. Yet the change request from last week’s meeting says that this functionality will be different. Can you explain the differences?”
  • Know when to ask. Check your company’s Microsoft Outlook directory to see when your SME would be available to take your questions. In some cases, it’s OK to ask your questions during team meetings. Most times, however, it’s better to ask the SME in a one-on-one situation, thereby not tying up everyone else’s time.
  • Know how to ask. Personal meetings are best because of the immediacy of feedback. In addition, the tone and inflection of one’s voice, along with nonverbal gestures, promote faster and greater understanding. Phone calls are second best for all these reasons except for nonverbal gestures. Instant messaging software, such as Microsoft Office Communicator or Yahoo Messenger, helps ensure immediacy of feedback. While e-mail is often the only option, it is not always the best option because feedback isn’t immediate, and others who have no role in the conversation are often included, which can lead both to misunderstandings and unwanted delays for clarification.
  • Know when to bribe. When posting your drafts for review, think of an incentive to get people to return their feedback to you more quickly. What you offer depends on the team and what you’re willing to provide. Perhaps you could bring cookies or other refreshments to the review meeting.
  • Know when to bludgeon. Sometimes bribery doesn’t work and you must resort to other, arguably devious, tactics. If you find it necessary to bludgeon your reviewers, let your project manager—or someone with supervisory authority—do the deed.
  • Build a rapport. One project manager I know plays in a rock-and-roll band on the weekends. While I’ve not heard his band play, I’m sure they do a marvelous job. Another project manager is a loyal Auburn University alumnus and football fan, while an engineer on this same team is a loyal alumnus and fan of the University of Alabama—Auburn’s archrival. It makes for some good-natured bantering before team meetings, and when I’ve approached one or the other I can break the ice by cheering or commiserating about how their team fared.

If you use these tips, you can make things easier for your SMEs, whose feedback will make things easier for you when you’re creating your documentation deliverables.

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