Working with Subject Matter Experts

When you need to write about something you’re not completely familiar with – which is probably most of your writing that’s not either pure fiction or autobiography – you may well need to consult one or more Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

This month in rewrite we look at how to make the most of your time with SMEs, and how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls when your work with them. In the meantime, here’s a few of the takeaways.


Find out what your project is about. Sounds pretty basic, but until you’ve nailed down what you’re writing about, it’s hard to identify the best people to help you with it. You may need to review an outline with whoever is sponsoring or signing off on your work, before you can be sure where the required expertise lies.

As you identify SMEs, try to get a feel for how likely it is you will be able to get what you need from them within your schedule. An unavailable expert is no use, and an expert in another time zone may be less useful than someone down the hall. You may prefer experts who have bought into the project, or whose managers are committed to it, over those who are unaware or who work in a separate organization.

You perhaps don’t need all your experts on day 1 for draft 1. Line up SMEs with dates and drafts, and sequence them if necessary if you know you will need information from one before you are ready to interview another.

Pay special attention to the message inviting them to speak with you. Make clear why you need them, when you need them, and why it’s important that they give you their time. It’s important to be flexible, but you should bear in mind your schedule and respect your own as well as the SMEs’ time. Always allow a potential SME who cannot meet your schedule to nominate someone else they feel is equipped to contribute.


In general, SME interviews should be efficient. That means you end up with information you can use in the form of notes you can decipher, and the SME has given you information you couldn’t reasonably or easily have got elsewhere. They are experts, so they don’t enjoy spending time discussing topics outside their area of expertise, especially if their schedule is already tight. Interviews usually go well when you ask intelligent questions for which you are adequately prepared, so you can move on without spending too much time seeking clarifications.

However, don’t waste time taking notes on points you really don’t understand. Worse than asking for clarification during the interview, is having to come back to the SME later to ask the same questions again because you clearly didn’t follow the first time around.

Awkward interviews – when the SME is uninterested, distracted or otherwise unhelpful – can always be rescheduled. Sometimes the suggestion that they be rescheduled is enough to bring them back on track. If you know the SME finds it hard to blank out uninterrupted time for you, it may be best to schedule the interview somewhere you won’t be disturbed – a meeting room, your office, even the cafeteria or coffee bar – and avoid the SME’s office.


Follow up with thank you and next steps – especially if the SME will be on an interview loop later in the project. If possible, make sure everyone involved in the project sees progress; publish a timeline with major milestones checked off as they are achieved. Give everyone a sense that the project has momentum, that they’re all onboard and it’s too late to step off. Be prepared to be diplomatic when you have conflicting information from SMEs, or when their review comments appear to contradict one another. You must ensure you understand and can articulate your understanding of all arguments before you pit them against one another and seek resolution. The ego in the Expert part of SME can be easily bruised, and maintaining a good professional relationship with SMEs is important, especially if you feel you may be speaking with them again in future projects.

More Information

This topic, and more, is further discussed in the May 2010 issue of rewrite, where we provide short, immediately useful and engaging articles relating to obtaining, organizing, transforming and producing written information. Take a look and see if a subscription might be useful for you; in the meantime, thanks for your interest in the readytext blog.

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