Notes from 51st International STC Conference
Baltimore, Maryland, May 9-12, 2004
The Writer and the SME
Kathryn Poe, Beal Bank (the writer), and Stephen D. Poe (the SME)
The presentation was conducted in an innovative fashion, using role-playing between the
two and then involving the audience as well.
This session offered insight into how technical subject matter experts (SMEs) tend to think and well as
tips for tech writers on how best to tap SMEs for the information we need to do our jobs.
- The need to interview a highly technical person is a common challenge in technical communication
- SMEs ("geeks") often don't understand the marketing implications of what they do, and it falls to
the technical communicator to bridge that gap.
- Acknowledge the value of the SME's time; establish an agenda, and stick to it.
- If you want a second-level "meta" message, then don't ask a literal question. You will get a
- The better your technical understanding of the subject matter, the better your credibility
with the SME. Getting smarter really does pay off.
- Using neutral territory can help maintain SME attention; it gets them away from their phone and computer.
- Ask developers to extract all the error messages out of the source code and compare with the list for
the documentation; in many cases, a significant number of error messages will not be covered in the documentation.
- Active listening (mirroring) can be effective for clarification if the SME answers obtusely, or to drive
to the next level of information if the SME answers circularly. But don't "parrot"; paraphrase. Parroting
could create resentment; paraphrasing asks for approval, which can be appealing (they "taught" you).
- General techniques
- Active listening
- Validation and empathy
- Keep them on topic, but background can be important
- A geek's world
- What is the SME's point of view? Motivation? Different stressors?
- Did the answer you got make sense to another geek?
- Think like a programmer
- "Knowledge is power" attitude
- The interview
- Set an agenda
- Did you fully prep before going in?
- Understand interruptions and priorities
- Did the SME answer the question you ask?
- Did you ask what you intended?
- Be very, very clear; very, very precise; and very logical.
- Frame questions from the point of view of the end user of the document.
- Explain the audience to the SME.