Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) enable you, the technical author, to write a document. Without their input, you will struggle. So, how does an experienced technical writer approach and interview an SME?

I base my advice on my personal experiences of talking to and working with SMEs. Like me, you will undoubtedly find that some SMEs are challenging while others are happy to help.

Approaching and Interviewing  SMEs 

  1. Ensure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance. Do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk.
  2. If you collaborate with other technical writers, check the project plans or ask if they have already spoken to that SME.
  3. If yes, does the information apply to you? if yes, do not ask the SME to run through it.
  4. I use a dictaphone to record interviews because I can always run the recording back if I have any queries. To date, no SME has objected to me recording the conversation.
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    • If they DO, it will mean listening intently and writing the information
  5. Approach the Interview at the appointed time:
    • Do not be surprised if the SME cancels the meeting because of other demands
    • If so, reschedule the meeting
  6. Always regard the interview as another knowledge-capture exercise that adds to your experience. Do not assume you know everything before you get there, even if you do.
  7. The SME will assume you understand their language; if not, stop the interview and request a less technical explanation or reassess your ability to do the job if you still do not understand.
  8. Only schedule an hour for the interview but clarify that if there are any points which are not clear, you will need to reschedule more time
  9. Be transparent – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  10. approaching and interviewing subject matter experts
    approaching and interviewing subject matter experts

    If the SME is not aware of your role or why you need their comments to introduce the project and you if you have not already done so introduce yourself

  11. The SME may not know everything and refer you to another SME for information
  12. When you return to your desk, start writing the document. Do not wait for a few days, even if you have recorded the interview
  13. Carry a pad and pen. You may need to ask the SME to draw the infrastructure.