Technical Writing | Interviewing SMEs

One of the many skills a technical writer needs is the ability to form relationships with SMEs. An experienced writer talks to subject matter experts to gather insights for a document. Without their input, the writer will face difficulties producing documents. On one project, I worked with two technical writers. They had their styles of approach, and I have mine.

One of our team members, x,x, had a style and approach that rubbed many SMEs the wrong way. I have a laid-back approach. If the SME could not talk because of urgent work, then that’s fine—we can reschedule the conversation. X.X found it difficult to communicate with technical SMEs, which made it challenging to gather the information. He had never worked in the technical field coming not from a technical background, but a process background where people are polite.

Approaching and Interviewing  SMEs 

  1. Ensure you schedule a meeting with the SME in advance. Please do not turn up at their desk and expect to talk.
  2. If you collaborate with other technical writers, review the project plans and inquire whether they have contacted the subject matter expert (SME) regarding topic XYZ. If they have, verify the information is what you need. In such cases, refrain from requesting the SME to reiterate the information.
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Schedule only an hour for the interview, but be clear that you will need to reschedule more time if specific points are unclear.
  8. Be transparent – there will be a peer review required, but you will let them know in advance when the document is ready for review
  9. 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 if you have not already done so, introduce yourself

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