SMEs Are People First, and They Need You to Be Prepared

They’re knowledgeable, but cryptic.

They’re busy, but necessary.

Of course, I’m talking about subject matter experts.

Chances are that if you’re a writer, researcher or on a content-based project, you’re working with one or more of these brilliant professionals, or SMEs.

Communication can often seem difficult, or downright impossible. Sometimes it IS their personality, but sometimes it’s you… and your relationship with them.

Is it possible to break through and build a relationship with someone you don’t know and still reach your deadline? Yes, it is — with these six steps.

Step 1: Study the industry or topic beforehand

Have you ever had a teacher who spoke over your head without taking time to answer questions? If you’re unprepared, a SME meeting can feel one hundred times worse — not only are you losing precious time by not understanding, there’s no extra credit to help you out.

Your SME will assume a lot about you before you talk, including that you’re prepared and ready to talk about the nuances of the field. For instance, if you’re talking to an architect, they won’t think to explain what AutoCad is; they’ll just explain how it fits into their process and move on.

What you shouldn’t do: Totally wing it. Being unprepared for a meeting makes you appear sloppy, inefficient, unproductive and ruins your chances of working for that client again!

What you should do: Give yourself a quick introductory education on the project topic. Go to YouTube or just Google it. You don’t need to know everything — just enough to follow along without making them backtrack every ten seconds.

Step 2: Find common ground

If cute, unlikely animal pairings have taught us anything, sparking a friendship is always possible. However, there’s a fine line in professional relationships between wanting to get coffee together and being a doormat for late work and excuses. Take a moderate amount of time in the beginning of the meeting to introduce yourself and the project, and let them do the same. This will also let you gauge their tone, interest level and project understanding.

What you shouldn’t do: Bash your job, the client or the project. It may be easy to bond by saying neither of you want to be here right now, but that will only open the door to negativity. Don’t associate yourself with bad feelings in the eyes of someone forced to work with you.

What you should do: Laugh a little. Even if they help writers or researchers every day, each new project and relationship is awkward and overwhelming. You feel it. They feel it. Lightening the mood will make them relax, which makes them give better responses overall.

Step 3: Have a specific direction that you can steer them

People chosen to be SMEs are usually chosen because they know the industry or topic backwards and forwards. Assuming you have an understanding of the project, you still don’t know near as much as they do. And this spells trouble for your brain.

While you might be excited to talk to someone who can give you more than you need, you may find that they have no clue where to start and begin drifting aimlessly into an irrelevant topic. More often than not, they don’t even know what your project is even about, so you’ll have to narrow it down for them.

What you shouldn’t do: Stop them from drifting altogether. For example, if you’re researching mortgages to write web copy about buying a house, and your SME starts talking about a new federal mortgage program that you’ve never heard of, listening to it may give your writing a new perspective. Flexibility is key to an effective interview.

What you should do: Create a list of questions that you can use to stay organized. If you get off course, come back with the next question. Also, make sure to explain the project and its expected deliverables. Being on the same page will make for a better flow.

Step 4: Use open-ended questions and let them explain in full

Closely connected to step 3, the type of questions and attention you give plays a part in the kind of information you get.

Think of this part like a first date. Yes/no answers will only bring awkward pauses and make you want to pretend there’s an emergency. By asking open-ended questions, you can get full answers and clearer guidance of what else you talk about. Further, by staying engaged and paying attention, they become more comfortable with giving information, opinions and overall time.

What you shouldn’t do: Cut them off. Like step 3 said, drifting to a certain degree is good. Prompting with a new question is the best way to get back on topic, but make sure you let them finish their thought before you change the subject. Otherwise, they may shut down.

What you should do: Ask follow-up questions that you didn’t prep. If you didn’t understand something, or if you want to know more, just ask. Most times, you’ll get just one meeting with that individual. You’ll regret not asking questions when you had the chance. And they’re less concerned with helping you after the fact.

Step 5: Let them review your work with reasonable time

Once you get your content drafted and ready for approval, send it to your SME. Even if you’re not prompted, it’s important that your content is right. They shouldn’t mind looking at it, but make sure to give them enough time. A day, or an hour, is not enough. If you have a tight deadline, let them know during the meeting and give them an ETA. If you have more time, standard turnaround for a busy professional is three to five days.

What you shouldn’t do: Give them more than one business week to review. They’ll procrastinate and forget… and you’ll find yourself deciding the nicest way to pester them through email. No one likes that game.

What you should do: Plan out your timeline before the first meeting and tell them where they fit in. If you don’t stick to it and see them getting tasks later or earlier than said, tell them so they can dedicate some time to it.

Step 6: Give them a thanks and shout out at submission

Step 6 is really two steps with a common theme. First, say thanks to the person who helped you. They may have had no choice in the matter, but they still did it and got you through your own job. Letting them know you appreciated them will only help you.

Second, tell the person you deliver to — their boss or otherwise — how much help your SME was, if possible. Don’t overdo it, but that kind of stuff helps fuel compliments, performance reviews and even promotions. Consider this a pay-it-forward situation.

What you shouldn’t do: Discount them because you didn’t like their personality. It’s hard to speak kindly of someone you didn’t click with, but you have to think long-term. What if you keep getting jobs from this client? You don’t want a reputation for being hard to work with.

What you should do: Be honest. If they didn’t give you any time and didn’t review your work, say something. You’re responsible for the content being correct, but you’re not a magician (probably). And if they really did bend over backwards for you, make sure someone knows how well you were treated. By doing so, you’ll probably end up working with that SME again.

Learning and understanding the personality and priorities of your SME early on will keep you sane as you navigate your project.

Yeah, they’re not perfect, but neither are you. While you may slip on your timeline, they may have trouble returning emails. Staying observant of their quirks and working with their strengths — not against them — is the only way to get your content approved and out the door.