The delicate relationship between subject-matter experts (SMEs) and writers is the stuff of legends. SMEs know the subject matter, which is often complex or highly technical, and writers know how to write. Or at least that’s the prevailing narrative.
For copywriters and technical writers in corporate settings, SMEs are an important gatekeeper. They can often determine better than anyone in the organization whether written content is an accurate reflection of a product, innovation, or concept.
They add terrific value – but often give writers major headaches in the process.
However, what if we challenged our assumptions about the dynamics between writers and SMEs? If each understood the other’s role with greater clarity, it could yield more effective and efficient collaborations, and a better product altogether.
Here are some things to think about when it comes to balancing quality, relevance, detail, risk, and readability – some hallmarks of effective content, whether or not it’s highly technical or specialized.
You’re on the same team
We often tell ourselves (and sometimes others) to check our egos at the door. Nowhere is this more important than in an environment where inaccurate or misleading content could pose a very real business risk.
Be intentional in occupying common ground.
As a writer, your words aren’t precious and unassailable. If an SME voices an objection, listen. Work with, not against, them. If you understand the underlying intent of the objection, you’ll be better positioned to suggest a reasonable solution. The intel you’ve drawn from the situation will benefit you (and your written content) in the future.
As an SME, your expertise is your advantage. Think about how you can state your case clearly and simply. You might rely on jargon as shorthand in your own day-to-day work, but external audiences (and some internal audiences) may not share your understanding of this vocabulary.
The more people understand your expertise, the more buy-in you can anticipate. Writers are your resource; they can help make this happen.
SMEs can be writers, and vice versa
Corporate approval processes often erect invisible Berlin Walls between departments, people, functions. This preserves order and structure but cripples collaboration and creativity.
We’re not advocating blind rebellion. However, it’s important to recognize and harness people’s secondary skills.
Here’s what you need to know. Some SMEs are gifted writers, either through hard work or natural talent. They may not list copywriting on their resume, but they might know more about grammar and usage, and tone and style, than some copywriters.
And many writers are, themselves, SMEs. They’ve cultivated expertise on a topic through years of research and immersion and can hold their own in a research lab or board room. Their questions come from a place of curiosity and drive, and their insights can help drive transformation.
Skill sets, like people, aren’t one-dimensional.
Fight the real enemy
SMEs and writers are a power team. Their combined ability to generate and share new ideas and build interest and excitement make them indispensable to growing brands.
But if they’re going to truly tap into their superpowers, they must move beyond some of the everyday obstacles that annoy and distract them and obfuscate the real issue: Making sure audiences understand who you are, what you do, and why. Encouraging them to take action.
The real enemy? Bad content. It stands between you and your brand’s growth. It holds back great ideas.
Here are some resources to help you build bridges between internal stakeholders, including SMEs, and writers, whose goal is to make you look good.
The 9 Most Important Professional Writing Skills (MasterClass)
The Seven Archetypes of Subject Matter Experts (Dashe & Thomson)
4 Techniques for Finding and Interviewing Your Dream Subject-Matter Expert (Big Brand System)
Writing with SMEs (The Writers for Hire)
Consummate Prose Consulting has decades of experience working with SMEs and loves geeking out with people who know a lot about something very specific. Contact us today to learn how you can get the most out of your SME relationships.