14 Nov 2019


The team is in place, and the kick-off meeting ( or kick-off call) is over. Now comes the content.

You probably have a good idea of what you need from everyone. You’ll find, however, that different colleagues require different levels of engagement. Your main challenge may well be dealing with various comfort levels when it comes to writing or, as the old saying goes, “putting pen to paper.”

Writers on your team no doubt stand ready to tackle whatever they receive. But first — as project, marketing, or content manager — you will want to establish some guidelines for them. That’s the easy part – underscoring adherence to the company’s style guide, industry-specific terminology, and third-party guidelines such as AP and APA.

Gathering the information you need from subject matter experts (SMEs) will require much more effort. How do you get them on board and help them help you? The kick-off meeting should have covered the basics of the writing process but, for some SMEs, more intensive follow-up, and perhaps some hand-holding, will be needed.

You’ll find that some SMEs are more receptive to producing content than others. Some may be active bloggers and regular contributors to company newsletters, for example. Their areas of expertise probably are already familiar to you, and it will be easy to engage them. Others may be much less comfortable or familiar with writing or working with writers.

Start out by considering the best approach to getting the information you need from your SMEs. Is it more efficient, or most convenient, to have a group meeting? Do you need to chat with individuals one-on-one informally or schedule formal interviews? Check out this article on writing with SMEs for tips on engaging SMEs, from the most reluctant writers to the more accomplished.

Your approach will vary, of course, depending on the product, the timeline, and the personalities involved. Use your best judgment, but don’t hesitate to enlist the help of colleagues in other departments who’ve worked with your company’s SMEs.

Best practices for working with SMEs  

Whether it’s you or someone else on your team that will be collecting information, here are some best practices for working with SMEs:

At the start of a group meeting, review the project’s format and explain what you need: comments, notes, emails, or content they may already have on hand.

If you’re conducting formal one-on-one interviews, send out the questions ahead of time. SMEs are very busy people, and you don’t want to waste their time.

If you are not already familiar with an SME’s area of expertise, do some research before approaching them for information. In addition to a keyword Google search, you might check out their Linked-In profile and any recent blog postings, papers, or presentations they’ve done.

Keep the focus on the intended audience. Some expertise-specific questions might be:

  1. What are the demographics of your target audience?
  2. What has been your recent experience with this target audience? What challenges have you helped them overcome?
  3. How have industry developments affected this target audience, and what should they do about it?
  4. What are the biggest issues your target audience faces?
  5. How does your solution provide value to your target audience?
  6. What’s your view on what other industry experts and thought leaders are saying now?
  7. Manage expectations. Let your experts know that the final content may not look anything like what they’ve discussed or submitted. You can show your appreciation for their time and effort, though, by sharing a high-level draft for comment prior to hard copy publication or going live on social media.

Finally, arbitrate any differences between your writers and SMEs. And don’t forget to thank everyone profusely for their contributions. Remember, every professional has a reputation to protect and an ego that needs stroking every now and then!

Brenda Hazzard 
Brenda Hazzard has over 30 years’ experience working as a writer and editor in the private and public sectors. She spent over 20 years working for the US Government in Washington and abroad, and spent several years working with the CIA during which she managed a team of writers producing internal briefs on international news, events, and politics. She writes on a variety of topics but loves opportunities to work on projects that cater to her keen interest in international affairs. She considers herself to be an empathetic editor, one who improves a draft but lets the spirit of the writer shine through. She has also worked on dissertations, white papers, newspaper articles, and family histories.

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